BERNSTEIN'S ECLECTIC, AUDACIOUS APPROACH

10.12.08
Marin Alsop
Baltimore Sun

Marin Alsop celebrates her mentor's take on liturgical music in '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.

--from Eucharistic Prayer III, Roman Catholic Mass It's hard not see Bernstein himself as the Celebrant.

The composer often addressed questions of faith in his works, notably the 1963 Kaddish Symphony.

He may never have fully resolved his own issues, but he could not leave the pivotal figure of his Mass devoid of hope and direction.

The liturgy provided the composer with an ideal solution, the part in the Mass when the priest encourages the congregation to exchange a "sign of peace." In Mass, after the Celebrant's breakdown, a solo flute is heard, not so distantly related to the one that provides a transition from conflict to the "Resurrection Ode" at the end of Mahler's Symphony No. 2.

Here, it leads to the pure sound of a boy soprano, whose haunting melody, resonant of the Celebrant's simple song, is gradually picked up by the full complement of singers.

During this Pax: Communion, which includes some of the most radiant and affecting music Bernstein ever wrote, those onstage exchange signs of peace and pass them along to the audience.

"I think that's the part Lenny liked the best," Alsop says. "He wanted people to give each other a kiss of peace all over the theater. He loved to kiss everyone." The Celebrant shares in this return to community and hope, this union of innocence and maturity.

Faith is now possible again, and so, Bernstein seems to say, is peace, if only the desire is strong enough.

Jamie Bernstein, the composer's daughter, tracks the origins of her father's own personal crisis of faith to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Mass, she says, was her father's way of responding to lingering aftereffects of that death, as well as the Vietnam War and the 1968 election of "the very antithesis of John F. Kennedy," Richard Nixon.

Not surprisingly, Nixon did not attend the premiere of Mass. Its loaded political implications ("We wait in silent treason until reason is restored. ... Give us peace that we don't keep on breaking.") would hardly have gone over well.

"There is distance enough from the events of that time," Alsop says. "Mass doesn't seem to have so much of a political agenda now, but it is still apropos today. Iraq comes to mind, of course. And what's happening on Wall Street." Adds Kevin Newbury, who is directing the BSO presentation: "A crisis of faith is always interesting -- and relevant." "In mercy and love unite all your children. ... Remember those who take part in this offering ... and all who seek you with a sincere heart." -- from Eucharistic Prayers III and IV, Roman Catholic Mass The sheer dimensions of Mass help to explain, perhaps more than any lingering doubts as to its quality, why it is so infrequently produced.

"One of the biggest challenges is the amount of space we have to move the masses -- no pun intended," says Newbury, who is staging Mass for the first time. "It is not meant to be a stand-and-sing concert.

It would be fun to have a set, but there's something nice about the economy of this. And there will be lighting." The 1971 premiere at the Kennedy Center Opera House was quite theatrical; having an orchestra pit freed up the stage for a lot of action, including choreography.

There won't be room for dancing at Meyerhoff, but "there will be so many bodies onstage that it will feel like there's a choreographic dimension to it," Alsop says. "You'll have a sense of motion." Gathering the performers has been "like casting for a Broadway show," Alsop says. The vocal soloists and singers for one of the several choruses involved were auditioned and rehearsed initially in New York.

Sykes has already sung the Celebrant for two productions led by Alsop in Los Angeles and London.

"Personally, there are certain things I think are great about Mass, including the whole idea of it, and some things I don't," he says. "After the performances I've done, I've heard everything from 'What in the world was that?' to 'That was the most beautiful thing I ever heard,' and everything in the middle." Newbury, too, has harbored some reservations.

"The first time I heard it, there were things I couldn't wrap my head around," the director says.

"But I've completely fallen in love with it. I think the way to approach it is to embrace the hybrid nature of the piece, to embrace the many different styles." Neither Newbury nor Sykes is Catholic; both have attended Catholic services for research. For her part, Alsop can draw on a closer connection.

"My father is from a large Mormon family and my mother is from a large Roman Catholic family," she says, adding with a laugh, "so I'm still trying to recover from everything." Alsop is "not big on organized religion" today. "I don't find Mass a particularly religious piece, but maybe I'm projecting my own feelings," she says.

"I'm happy when people see their own personal beliefs in it, or when they disagree with certain aspects.

You can end up feeling hopeful or questioning, with a sense of possibility or trepidation. It depends on where you are in your life," Alsop says. "Great art is not prescriptive; it offers possibility."