Bernstein’s ‘Mass’: Passion Affirmed, If Not Relevance

Gustavo Dudamel led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
(Mathew Imaging)
By Rick Schultz

LOS ANGELES ‒ Leonard Bernstein’s gigantic Mass is a middle-aged man’s piece, a brilliant musical omnivore’s near frantic attempt to remain hip and relevant. On Feb. 1, at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Gustavo Dudamel led the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a musically well-balanced account.

Cover of the original Mass recording, led by Bernstein.

In Mass, which the composer subtitled “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” Bernstein took a cue from Britten’s 1962 War Requiem, using the Latin liturgy as a structural scaffold for his own antiwar views on Vietnam, pollution, and the country’s spiritual malaise. It was his personal state of the union address. Bernstein was in his early 50s when Mass received its 1971 premiere at the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington.

Dudamel would seem to have the ideal youthful temperament for breathing new life into Bernstein’s unwieldy Mass, performed to mark the composer’s centennial this year. He did prove an effective general throughout, helping to keep the more than 200 performers flowing smoothly. Those forces, along with the Philharmonic musicians, included the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the L.A. Children’s Chorus, a street chorus, a boy soprano, dancing acolytes, and the UCLA Wind Ensemble.

When it premiered, many critics rightly noted that Mass was too long. It’s also a bust theatrically. There’s little in the slight narrative that is emotionally involving, a fatal flaw for a piece Bernstein intended to be moving. For the premiere, director Gordon Davidson and Bernstein’s wife Felicia pleaded with Bernstein to make cuts. But Bernstein remained adamant. Dudamel and director Elkhanah Pulitzer could do nothing about that. The Bernstein estate is reportedly a strict steward of the composer’s legacy.

A weak libretto by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz (Godspell) didn’t help, though Paul Simon contributed lines for the street chorus – “Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election/ Half of the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction” – that are wittier and more profound than almost anything else in Mass.

Ryan McKinny sang the role of the Celebrant. (Simon Pauly)

With some glorious exceptions, Mass is a post-Woodstock artifact from the era of Jesus Christ Superstar. Yet Mass almost bulls its way through its defects with sheer audacity and musical profligacy.

The work’s opening, for example, a fragmented twelve-tone Kyrie, is an avant-garde taped mash-up of voices and percussion instruments in competing meters and keys emitted from quadraphonic speakers. That’s followed by a live jazzy Alleluia with a marching band, flanked by two choruses, and dancers, all backed by a full symphony orchestra making its cacophonous entrance.

Then the central figure of Mass, known only as the Celebrant (and indeed the sole individualized character in the work), enters, dressed in T-shirt and jeans. Performed by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, the Celebrant “answers” the crowd with “Simple Song,” the kind of straightforward, sentimental tune of yesteryear that Bernstein excelled at.

Bernstein employs a potpourri of musical styles and idioms, often settling on blues, pop, or jazz. For Mass, the composer drew from a deep well. For good and ill, Bernstein’s overflowing piece is arguably a prototype for later boundary-crossing works by the likes of Schnittke, John Adams, Osvaldo Golijov, and John Zorn.

Playing a charismatic religious leader who apparently wins, then loses, his flock, with an accompanying crisis of faith, is a tall order for McKinny. Bernstein and Schwartz never prepare the audience for the Celebrant’s climactic 15-minute mad scene, “Things Get Broken,” toward the end of Mass. Nor do we see why his spirit and devotion are suddenly revived in the inexplicable finale.

Elkhanah Pulitzer, director of the LA Phil production.

Although directed by rising star Pulitzer, with rather unimaginative choreography by Laurel Jenkins and costumes by Christine Cook, this production of Mass seemed strangely conservative in approach. Jenkins did capture the ’60s be-in dancing style and ambience, all waving arms and twisting bodies. But Cook’s costumes were either predictable or confusing. Initially, the stereotypically hippie street chorus wear colorful headbands, dashikis, enormous Afro wigs, and the like. But their change to more avant-garde black-and-white attire later in the show, perhaps an attempt to suggest spiritual emptiness, was simply puzzling.

Even Seth Reiser’s set design felt a bit wrongheaded. A giant cross, eventually lit up in neon, loomed over the stage and audience, its heavy symbolism undermining what was presumably Bernstein’s nondenominational take on faith in the 20th century. At center stage, a big white block symbolized an altar. Reiser’s lighting design more effectively suggested changing moods.

Sound designer Mark Grey did the best he could in Disney Hall, never an ideal venue for vocal performances. I spoke to people who sat in the balcony, and they said the singers were “inaudible” in the first act, although things reportedly improved after intermission. There were supertitles.

As diffuse as Mass is, there were pleasures to be had. Dudamel made the most of the score’s high points, which for this listener were the three long instrumental sections, called “Meditations.” These subtly scored passages generated most, if not all, of the religious feeling Bernstein purportedly sought. Despite the length of Mass – nearly two hours – the Philharmonic performed with gusto and sensitivity throughout.

Bernstein once spoke of his “total embrace” of music, and Mass is nothing if not heartfelt. In the last decade or so, conductors like Marin Alsop and even some critics have bent over backwards trying to convince audiences of the continuing relevance and musical daring of Mass. People who saw Mass in the 1970s may always feel an affection for the trip down memory lane it offers. But if the reserved response the production received from a nearly full Disney Hall on opening night was any indication, Mass will always remain a hard sell.

Rick Schultz writes about classical music for the Los Angeles Times and the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles.



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