Bravo! Vancouver takes on ‘MASS’-ive show

Performance of work by Leonard Bernstein is group’s largest

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If you go

• What: Bravo! Vancouver presents Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” featuring baritone Douglas Webster, the Pacific Youth Choir and the Washington Chamber Orchestra.

• When: 2 p.m. Feb. 12.

• Where: St. Joseph Catholic Church, 400 S. Andresen Road, Vancouver.

• Cost: Reserved tickets $25 (group discounts available for 10 or more tickets) Kids younger than 12 are free with paid parent.

• Information: Call 360-906-0441 or contact ticketswest.com or bravoconcerts.com.

It has been a long and winding road for Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” a massive work that involves multiple choirs, instrumentalists and a baritone soloist.

All of these performers have to be comfortable in classical, Broadway, rock, and blues styles, because Bernstein employed all of them in this eclectic work. When “MASS” debuted in 1971 at the grand opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing

Arts in Washington, D.C., some critics called it “fashionable kitsch” and others found it too much of a mishmash of musical genres. But after an acclaimed performance at the Vatican in 2001 for Pope John Paul II, Bernstein’s “MASS” has become known to more and more audiences.

Now, Bravo! Vancouver will perform “MASS,” in a collaborative effort that will involve the Pacific Youth Choir, the Washington Chamber Orchestra and baritone Douglas Webster, who was the soloist (called the “celebrant”) in the memorable production at the Vatican. The concert at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church will be conducted by Bravo! Vancouver’s Artistic Director Michael Kissinger.

“Bernstein’s ‘MASS’ will be the largest work that we have ever presented,” Kissinger said. “In terms of musicians, choirs, street chorus, celebrant and all, there’s a lot going on in this work. As a conductor, you have to steer the ship. It’s a concerto for conductor.”

Although there is a version for full orchestra, Bravo! Vancouver will present the “MASS” in a version that has been arranged for a chamber orchestra.

“The chamber version requires a smaller number of instrumentalists, and that will allow everyone to fit into the space at the church,” Kissinger said.

While “MASS” is structured in sections that are similar to a Roman Catholic Mass, with Gloria, Kyrie, Offertory and Agnus Dei, the music is eclectic and reflects the multifaceted nature of Bernstein’s career. Blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway and jazz idioms go hand-in-hand with 12-tone serialism, symphonic marches, solemn hymns, Middle Eastern dances, orchestral meditations and lush chorales. It may seem disjointed at times, but it stands as a whole to tell a story.

“‘MASS’ tells about the journey of faith of a person, the celebrant,” Kissinger said. “He is very faithful, but he experiences a crisis of faith that makes him question what it is all about. By the end, he comes full circle with his faith strong and intact.”

You would be hard-pressed to find a better singer for the role of the celebrant than Webster, who has performed on Broadway and toured nationally in the lead role of the musical “Les Misérables.”

“I’ve done the celebrant about 25 times,” Webster said. “It’s one of those roles that fits me very well, like a suit off the rack at the store. You put it on and everything is perfect with no tailoring required.”

Webster has sung the role of the celebrant all over the world, including a performance in Riga, Latvia, in 2007. A segment of that performance that includes the most famous number in the work, “Simple Song,” can be found on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bFtEdx6j3x4). Webster’s performance at the Vatican is available on DVD through Amazon.com.

“For the Vatican performance, I was contacted by the Bernstein people,” Webster recalled. “They asked me to assemble a cast and to help produce it. I had a production company at the time. We followed that performance with one at Carnegie Hall and also with the Dallas Symphony.”

According to Webster, “MASS” has a powerful message no matter which way it is performed.

“I’ve done fully staged productions with dance, and I’ve done concert versions, and both styles have exactly the same effect on the audience,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you spend $500,000 on the set or if you stand there with one microphone. It’s about the message and the words.”

Webster, who resides in Portland, will be bringing a lot of friends to the concert.

“I recently took a day job,” remarked Webster. “I’m the director of active living at Merrill Gardens, a retirement center in Orchards. I get to mix cocktails and drive the bus. I love taking seniors to concerts and theater. On some weekends, I have to fly away and sing a concert.”

Webster doesn’t miss touring with Broadway shows.

“Life on the road and living in hotels is something that I don’t want to do much of,” said Webster. “To sing the Bernstein “MASS” for a local crowd is a blast. We hope to have over a hundred people from local retirement communities come to hear us.”