Civil Rites

Marin Alsop celebrates composer Leonard Bernstein's eclectic, audacious approach to liturgical music in 'Mass'

October 12, 2008|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,tim.smith@baltsun.com

Make us grow in love

- from Eucharistic Prayer II, Roman Catholic Mass

When Leonard Bernstein undertook to create a work for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, it was inevitable that he would think big. Very big.

The result was Mass, subtitled A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. There has never been, and probably never will be, anything quite like it.

Since its premiere Sept. 8, 1971, it has generated mixed reactions, from ecstatic to dismissive.

Among those in the strongly positive camp is Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director Marin Alsop, perhaps the most ardent champion Mass has had since Bernstein himself. Over the past dozen years, she has conducted it in collaborations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and others.

"I don't think there's one weak moment in it," Alsop says of the two-hour work. "It's just brilliant."

She is about to lead the BSO, Morgan State University Choir and Marching Band, Peabody Children's Chorus, soloist Jubilant Sykes and others - more than 250 performers - in a semi-staged production at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall that will be recorded for a CD to be released on the Naxos label.

Mass then moves to New York's Carnegie Hall and United Palace Theater (with local student performers), as part of "Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds," a citywide festival marking what would have been the composer's 90th birthday. A final performance will be at the Kennedy Center.

"When I first heard snippets of it, I thought, what's that? The sound was kind of like 'Kumbaya,' very '60s folk-song in a way," Alsop says. "Then I got really curious about it when I started to get to know Bernstein."

Alsop was one of Bernstein's favorite students; she received a conducting fellowship to work with him at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts in the late 1980s, a couple of years before he died.

"I had a feeling there was something a bit raw about the subject of Mass for him," Alsop says. "I wanted to know more about the piece and its history, and why it was a sore spot. But whenever I brought it up, he would say, 'I don't want to talk about it.' Then, of course, I got really into it, and I read some of the critics."

The larger-than-life Bernstein took as his starting point the liturgy of the Mass, a nod to Kennedy's distinction as the first Catholic president. But he was not about to restrict himself to writing music merely for the five passages traditionally treated by composers, the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. He envisioned something much more extensive, something closer to an actual service.

Interspersed with the liturgical texts are lyrics by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz, as well as a few provocative lines offered by Paul Simon. In this way, Bernstein could explore all of his passionate feelings about religion, war, government, authority, individuality, community.

And Bernstein set out to do this not in one cohesive musical voice, but a whole prism of musical styles, including heavy and light classical, rock, folk, jazz, blues, Broadway - a sonic catholicity.

Although a few reviewers voiced praise, and audiences responded with exceptional fervor, most of the press was cool to hostile. Mass was branded as vulgar, confused, pretentious.

"Originally, it must have been difficult for some people to deal with," Alsop says. "They must have felt, 'Look at him, he's just trying to be so hip. He's too cool for words.' "

That striving for coolness is unmistakable in Mass, and it can come across as labored. But each diverse element in the score serves the big picture that Bernstein is after, an examination of what binds us together, what prompts and soothes crises of faith.

Clashes between tonality and dissonance provide a telling symbol of all this, as when a pre-recorded tape of a vocal quartet negotiating a cacophonous Kyrie is halted by the Celebrant inviting his congregation to "sing God a simple song." ("The music is never simple, even if it sounds simple," Alsop says.)

Many other conflicts erupt in Mass, musical and verbal. The congregation always seems to be in a volatile state, easily turning cynical or threatening. The Celebrant, an exceptionally demanding baritone role, eventually loses control of his flock.

"He's a good guy who means well," says Sykes, the Celebrant for the BSO. "He loves people. He loves, or likes, God, but he's more into being connected with his friends and his congregation. When they begin to turn on him and doubt their faith, he has no strength. It brings up his own fears and doubts."

Alsop describes the Celebrant's crisis as "one of the greatest mad scenes in all of music. Lenny was the most wonderful storyteller, and Mass is a terrific story about self-discovery," she says. "The Celebrant talks about good deeds, but there comes a moment when there has to be sacrifice."

May this sacrifice, which has made our peace with you, advance the peace ... of all the world.

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