Thursday, August 06, 2009

Wrestling With Bernstein's Mass

It was the musical commission of a generation. Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis gave Leonard Bernstein quite a plum; compose a work for the highly anticipated opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

The whole world would be watching, the audience glittering, an event tailor made for the showman in Lenny. Bernstein wrote: “I’ve always wanted to compose a service of one sort or another, and I toyed with ecumenical services that would combine elements from various religions and sects, of ancient or tribal beliefs, but it never all came together in my mind until Jacqueline Onassis asked me to write a piece dedicated to her late husband…The Mass is also an extremely dramatic event in itself—it even suggests a theater work."

"Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" premiered in September 1971. Vietnam still raged, everything in society was questioned... everyone was cool, hip, flower power reigned. This "cool", "hip" and irreverent Mass was panned, lauded, dismissed, raved about, misunderstood and dismissed.. sometimes by the same critics. Embarrassingly 70's-ish, awkward, one moment highly classical, the next then trendy pop-ish, "Godspell" on steroids
(the two pieces had the same librettist), Mass seemed to be a one performance wonder. Jacqueline even stayed away.

A recording led by Bernstein soon came out on Columbia LPs. The day it appeared at the "Spin Shop", I snatched a copy...played the damn thing endlessly. My friend Rodger and I listened to it daily. Off to college, my friend and eventual roommate Steve also loved it. In fact, it was my hearing it coming from his room that led to us becoming long time friends. It was played endlessly then as well.

To this day, I know every note and word of this strange, zany, psychedelic recreation of the Roman Catholic Mass. That being in spite of not having heard it in years, the LPs being victims of a flooded basement years ago. I never got the CD version.

For a long time, it appeared that only the opening "A Simple Song", soon to be a staple of church performances and the "3 Meditations", taken from 3 instrumental interludes, would survive. A few performances cropped up now and then, but the Kent Nagano led German performance with Jerry Hadley as the Celebrant was the first recorded since 1971. Looking back, with nostalgia and a realization that little socially and politically had changed, Mass looked a little less geeky and silly.. and a bit more relevant and grown up.. as we had along with it. Critics seems to let up a bit and even say the piece might have some life left.

2009 has been an embarrassment of Mass riches, with two new recordings: Kristjan Jarvi led another German based performance for Chandos and now Marin Alsop leads a Baltimore performance on Naxos.

I have not heard the Nagano performance in total so I can not comment on it myself, but it was well received and compared favorably with the Bernstein. It was the first recording using Bernstein's revisions in the score and libretto. The Jarvi was quite good, but a bit on the fast side and I am not sure his cast really understood the piece.

However, the new Alsop/Jubilant Sykes performance is quite a revelation, and spot on for the most part. Sykes is more comfortable in the pop/gospel element, but pales a bit in comparison to Alan Titus' darker, more intense (and "classical") Celebrant in the Bernstein. Alsop's "Dona Nobis Pacem" section of the "Agnus Dei" is breathtaking in its intensity, but darn it, I missed Titus' more commanding, operatic breakdown, screaming "pacem!!" to the out of control cast and world as he breaks the chalice and spills the blood of Christ on the floor.

In a couple of classical music forums, I posted that I dismissed Mass as a dated, embarrassing mess.. part of me wants to simply hate the piece. But 40 years on(!!!) I am still wrestling with the damn thing. Yes some parts are corny (kazoo band still intact, some awfully silly lyrics, every musical style imaginable, sometimes within the same measure) and it still reeks of a bell bottomed, flower child, "peace, man", "dig this" society... but I think, maybe, if we give it a chance and overlook it weak points, it still will speak to us. Instead of being dated, it can show us we have not made a lot of progress socially in 40 years, only the names and clothing styles have changed.

Bernstein wanted this to be his magnum opus; he yearned to be remembered for Mass rather than West Side Story. That likely will not come to pass, but neither will this wacky, overblown...thing.. disappear. It has come back with a challenge to listen and reassess and to remind a fragile nation that "we've got quarrels and qualms and such questions, give us answers, not psalms and suggestions" is a cry heard on the streets today just as loud as it was in 1971.

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