MASS’ Dayton voice

A job well-done by DPO, WSU and Kettering Children’s Choir

By Patrick Suarez

The Celebrant addressing the Street People in MASS.

For Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra Music Director and Conductor Neal Gittleman, it was a dream realized. For Dayton Philharmonic management, it was a financial and programming gamble that paid off beyond their wildest hopes. Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, performed on May 13 and 14, was a flat-out hit in every sense.

MASS was a collaboration of the DPO and its chorus with the Wright State University Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures, the WSU Department of Music and the Kettering Children’s Choir. In terms of stage movement and musical complexity, MASS was the most ambitious work the DPO has tackled in its nearly eight decades of existence.

The staging, designed by WSU’s Pam Lavarnway, was industrial, with iron grillwork and a catwalk surrounding the back of the stage. Throughout the performance, choreographed by Gina Gardner-Walther and directed by Greg Hellems, dancers and singers climbed up and down ladders, marching and lining up on the catwalk in various configurations. The constant motion during agitated sections of MASS gave the piece energy that amped up Bernstein’s music. When the assemblage was not in motion, the stillness was emphasized with the level of activity in the rest of the piece. If audience members had no appreciation for the unimaginable work, skill, talent and preparation that is the life of the choreographer, the stage director and their performers, they certainly went home with an abundance of appreciation and newfound admiration.

The main orchestra was in the Mead Theater pit, but some orchestra members also sat under the catwalk on both sides of the stage. The rock and blues bands flanked the stage at both ends of the catwalk. With his orchestra scattered and the addition of the bands as well as the coming and going that occurred for the duration of the work’s nearly 110 minutes, this was the most daunting conducting challenge in Neal Gittleman’s tenure in Dayton. But General Gittleman was unfazed. In fact, he seemed to draw energy from the work as it progressed and clearly earned the four stars on his shoulders, commanding his forces to a mighty artistic victory.

During the work’s unsettling music that opened MASS, the audience was introduced to the Street People, moving briskly back and forth, stopping momentarily as they went about their busy lives. There was a cop, a soldier, a professional career woman, a business man, a waitress, a young sports fan with a Dayton Dragons uniform shirt and a baseball cap worn backwards, along with other contemporary occupations.

As if by magic, amid the chaos, the Celebrant, performed with impressive acting range and voice by John Wesley Wright, materialized. In a flash, the troupe froze, the stage lights went black and the spot hit Wright who calmed the storm with “A Simple Song.” Wright was terrific, impressive, particularly in his pleading exhortations of “Pacem!” trying to quell the madness in the Agnus Dei, immediately before his meltdown (“Things Get Broken”).

Given the nature of MASS, one could consider Bernstein’s music in a supporting role. While that might be true, Gittleman and the DPO brought out the lushness of the score, giving it radiance that made MASS transcendent and the orchestra actually a significant member of the cast. Gittleman made sure that the inner beauty of Bernstein’s score was given full due.

In the Dayton City Paper article entitled “A Simple Song” about MASS published a few days before the performances, in interviews with key participants and in Neal Gittleman’s preconcert talk at the Schuster Center, the point was made repeatedly that this is not a work for a CD. Rather, it is a multilayered event that must be seen, preferably live, to really get MASS’ full impact. Nowhere was this more true than in the “Pax: Communion” that follows “Things Get Broken.”

With the Celebrant slumped in a sitting position after his psychological self-immolation, the Street People were scattered about, lifeless, having collapsed under the Celebrant’s rage. A girl (Gabrielle Dowdy) entered the stage, the only person moving, and sang a beautiful soprano “Lauda” (“Praise”), repeating the word as the orchestra caressed her gentle voice. The girl touched a lifeless Street Person, who slowly arose and began singing “Lauda,” touched another lifeless person who then arose, began singing “Lauda,” touching and awakening another person. As more voices added their praise, Gittleman and the DPO slowly increased their volume, at a steady, slow tempo, until the entire cast was on its feet singing “Lauda.” The Street People pulled the Celebrant to his feet and, having recovered, added his voice to their 19. As the intensity built, voice upon awakened voice, methodically, the ring of lights in front of the Mead Theater balconies came up slowly: 10 minutes to remember a lifetime that no CD could hope to capture. At the end of this spiritual resurrection, the music halted and the Celebrant announced, “The Mass is ended. Go in peace.” Wright gave the word “peace” more than a bit of urgency, reflecting a real world gone mad.

About 4,500 people witnessed both performances. They have the vision of an inspired composer, a conductor whose life was influenced profoundly by that composer, a huge number of talented musicians, singers and dancers, and an orchestra management to thank.

Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Suarez at

Pat Suarez
Pat Suarez has been involved with a wide variety of music for nearly five decades. He has hosted music programming on FM radio and produced and hosted the radio broadcasts of two symphony orchestras. His articles about music have been published extensively in print and online. Reach him at

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