"I've not written a Mass, I've written a theater piece about a Mass." Leonard Bernstein
I took a much-needed time out from CMJ this afternoon to ride up to the United Palace Theater on 175th St. for a performance of Leonard Bernstein's Mass (1971) by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a cast and chorus of over 600. (They were also to have been joined by the Stony Brook University Marching Band, but that outfit needed to cancel on late notice.) The event, part of Carnegie Hall's "Best of All Possible Worlds" festival, was the capstone to the Bernstein Mass Project: an educational program which has engaged middle and high school students from around NYC for the past three months.
Bernstein's Mass, which I first encountered thanks to a college professor who lent me his copy of the best-selling album, is both ambitious and controversial, both lyrically and musically. Bernstein set out to write a work of real currency that honored the genre embraced by everyone from Beethoven to Britten while incorporating the language of the time: in addition to some stunning orchestral writing, there's rock, folk, musical theater, even Ivesian brass.
But Bernstein - who was Jewish - saw his Mass as more commentary than service, and so worked with Godspell creator Stephen Schwartz (who was 23 at the time) to break up the traditional Latin text with modern lyrics. Some of these numbers - "A Simple Song"; "I Don't Know"; "I Go On" - are pleasant, even catchy, and have become standards in their own right. But, others are downright provocative, positing the irrelevance of religion in a secular society:
"I believe in God,
But does God believe in me?
I'll believe in any god
If any god there be."
In the end, Bernstein's Mass suffers from stylistic schizophrenia and frequent cheesiness, which have proven to be obstacles to its wide acceptance (along with the massive resources required to stage it.) But, it is also a challenging and necessary credo for our time, with flashes of musical brilliance that deserve to be heard more often, either onstage or in the concert hall.
As in the climactic Agnus Dei, which comes near the end of Mass. It starts as a traditional setting of the Latin text but upon hitting the phrase "Dona Nobis Pacem" ("Grant us Peace") quickly launches into an angry cry for peace, a reflection of the war protests then raging throughout the country. At the United Palace, the swinging, pounding chorus started with the cast, then joined by the stage choir, then the full complement of students in the audience, building steadily in intensity and volume. Just when you thought it could't possibly get any louder, it did. Astonishing.
The central role of the Celebrant was sung by baritone Jubilant Sykes, in a powerful and theatrical performance. Conductor Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protegee, seemed completely in command of the huge forces (half of whom were seated in the first 12 rows of the audience.) And, having just spent the past four nights at rock shows, it was great to have really effective stage lighting, designed by Alan Adelman.
I sat with Caleb, who had just come from his own rehearsal for the Bach B-Minor Mass, in which he'll be performing as soloist at Trinity Church on Tuesday. "I think that might have been the greatest thing I've ever seen," he said. Now that's saying something.
Two rows in front of us, I spotted Jamie Bernstein, the composer's daughter and a visible musical educator in her own right. Wiping tears from her eyes, I asked her what her father would have thought of the performance.
"Oh, he was here tonight," she said, matter-of-factly. And, I'm sure he would have been proud. (More pics below.)