Orchestra of the Music Makers’ performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass likely to be year’s finest concert

The Orchestra of the Music Makers performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
The Orchestra of the Music Makers performing at the Esplanade Concert Hall.PHOTO: YONG JUNYI

REVIEW / CONCERT

LEONARD BERNSTEIN'S MASS

Orchestra of the Music Makers

Esplanade Concert Hall/Last Saturday

If there were a more eclectic and conflicted work of religious music than the Mass by American composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), it has yet to be written. Also, trust the Orchestra of the Music Makers to mark its 10th anniversary by giving its Singapore premiere, surely a sign of wildly imaginative programming and its coming of age.

It should not have been a huge surprise, this year being the Bernstein centenary. For this most moving of performances, a large orchestra with electric guitars and rock drum sets, two choruses (Symphonia Choralis and Volare Treble Singers, with 130 voices), a semi-chorus of 16 street-singers (Himig Sanghaya from the Philippines) and American tenor Kevin Vortmann as the Celebrant were led by conductor Joshua Tan.

Composed for the opening of Washington D.C.'s Kennedy Center in 1971, the Mass was dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who was the United States' first Roman Catholic president.

A two-hour-long reflection of the liturgical mass, Latin and English transliterations were interspersed with texts by Stephen Schwartz (composer of Godspell and numerous Disney musicals) and a few lines from singer-songwriter Paul Simon, much bordering on the provocative and irreverent.

Initial responses were mixed and bewilderment over its possibly blasphemous content divided listeners. But viewed over a span of 47 years, it may now be regarded as a child of its time, from the era of Beatles, Woodstock, Jesus Christ Superstar and the Vietnam War, and written by the composer of musical West Side Story and choral work Chichester Psalms, himself of the Jewish faith.

The cacophony of rock singer voices in the opening Kyrie Eleison, blared out through speakers, was meant to be disorientating. Stability was restored in A Simple Song, the most famous number, sung with disarming earnestness and clarity by Vortmann.

Faith is meant to be simple right? His problems were just beginning, with his devotion assailed by questions from sceptics and naysayers.

The street-singers, each a convincing soloist, sealed the street cred for this production. Highly idiomatic voices, with no hint of Asian accents, were the Greek chorus to Vortmann's ministrations. "I believe in God, but does God believe in me?" was among the plaints leading to the Celebrant's crisis of faith and ultimate meltdown.

Vortmann's tour de force in Things Get Broken was most memorable. Credit must also go to boy soprano Mikey Robinson, almost an apprentice Celebrant with his sanity-restoring aria Sing God A Secret Song that mirrored the opening Simple Song. The life-affirming end was also simple, with the exhortation: The Mass is ended, go in peace.

Central to the concert's roaring success were Edith Podesta's clear-headed direction, which kept the audience entranced while enhancing the music-making, and Brian Gothong Tan's ecumenical multimedia visuals that flashed on two large overhead screens. In what is likely to be this year's finest concert, every man finds his own faith, unfettered by rigid doctrines or dogmas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 04, 2018, with the headline 'Mass in a new light'. Print Edition | Subscribe