From the outset, Friday night's True Concord Voices & Orchestra concert looked like your typical big-chorus event.
Two-dozen adult choristers in black robes sharing the risers on one side of the Centennial Hall stage with an equal number of Tucson Arizona Boys Chorus vocalists dressed in red.
The orchestra numbering two dozen was set up on the other side of the stage.
The red-carpeted ramp separating the chorus and orchestra was an interesting twist.
And the chair at the conductor's podium was a first; in the 14 years Eric Holtan has led his professional choir, we've never seen him sit through a performance.
When the Centennial Hall house lights dimmed, the voices ignited — a solitary and stirling soprano joined by a warm and commanding baritone singing the Kyrie Eleison — and the choirs joined in and then the dancers came on stage and Grammy-nominated world-class baritone Jubilant Sykes appeared singing the uplifting Broadway-style ode "A Simple Song," and you had a feeling Holtan wouldn't be using that chair much.
The performance kicked off the second weekend of the Tucson Desert Song Festival "Bernstein At 100." It repeats at 3 p.m. Sunday at Centennial Hall, 1020 E. University Blvd. on the University of Arizona campus.
Bernstein's Mass is not a Mass in the traditional Mozart or Verdi style, where the focus is squarely on the choir and soloists. This is Bernstein, after all, a man with a flair for the dramatic and theatric. His Mass is a theater piece in all its glory, with beautiful young UA School of Dance students gloriously prancing about to wonderful choreography by the husband-and-wife team of Christopher Bryan Compton and Tamara Dyke-Compton; impressive voices from both choirs; soloists — RC Troike from the Boys Chorus, baritone Tamar Green, soprano Katherine Weber and tenor Aaron Finley — who brought not only terrific vocals to the stage but some serious acting chops; and a chamber orchestra that easily slipped genres from classical to jazz and pop with shades of beebop. At one jazzy point early on, as RC was singing this high-pitched prayer, his fellow Boys Chorus singers chimed in with kazoos.
Sykes, who was nominated for a Grammy for his role as the celebrant, was impressive, not only because he has an amazing warm and nuanced voice that goes from the soulful low end of his range to a middle spot where pop and classical music come together, but because he inhabits the role. He is the celebrant, the man of God who is struggling mightily with his doubts and the arduous task of keeping his congregation in the faith. You could feel his frustration and despair as he fell to the floor in a crumpled mess of angst and frustration as his congregants (the dancers) fell further from faith. That was perhaps best expressed by the seductive dance between a guy in white — representing purity — and a girl in red — representing temptation.
The pair's dance was a theme throughout the piece, until Sykes reached his breaking point in the explosive "Things Get Broken." In a fit of palpable frustration, he poured the wine on the floor, smashed the glass and then, with a look of desperation and sheer madness, he convinced us he was a man truly struggling to find himself again. It was brilliant.
Sykes was joined by a stage full of standout performances including UA dancer Keenan Schember in the role of God's Fool; RC, who elicited more than a few oohs and ahhs among the audience of 1,100; the adult and the boys choirs, who nailed all sides of the Bernstein, from the classical that's in their wheelhouse to the jazzy pop and all Bernstein's theatrics including a chorus of finger-snapping and soloists whose moment to shine cast them as actors. The three soloists, including Greene who had such wonderful colors to his velvet baritone, were terrific, as were the student dancers, who brought the Comptons' choreography to brilliant, dramatic life.
As for that chair at the podium: Holtan sat in it briefly during one of Sykes's a capella solo turns.
Holtan arguably had the biggest role Friday night keeping all of the moving parts connected. From the outside looking in, it seemed daunting keeping track of the dancers entering and exiting, cuing the choirs and keeping the orchestra on page with the soloists. But Holtan performed with near flawless timing in a concert that no doubt will go down as one of the highlights of the Song Festival's "Bernstein At 100."