Bernstein’s Mass, Once Written Off, Now Enjoys Embrace Of A New Era

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A production of Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival was led by Marin Alsop. (Photo by Patrick Gilson)

PERSPECTIVE — When Leonard Bernstein’s Mass debuted at the much-anticipated 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the 1¾-hour work faced a negative onslaught from many critics. Typical were Harold C. Schonberg’s dismissive comments in the New York Times: “It is a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show-biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.”

But in the nearly five decades since the piece’s premiere, the classical-music world has become much more accustomed to the kind of stylistic cross-pollination that runs through the Mass, and views have significantly changed about Bernstein the composer. Since his death in 1990, many of his classical works that had been downplayed or set aside have found renewed attention and respect. Indeed, virtually everything he wrote was heard via hundreds of concerts worldwide celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth in 2018.  

This transformation of perceptions has been especially pronounced when it comes to the Mass, which is being celebrated with a series of 50th-anniverary events. Among these is a Great Performances series re-broadcast of a 2019 production at the Ravinia Festival conducted by Marin Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés. (Check local listings for dates and times. PBS Passport will also stream it online through Oct. 6.)

In addition, the Kennedy Center will conclude its season-long 50th-anniversary celebration with a production of the work Sept. 15-17, 2022. It will feature Will Liverman, the 2020 Marian Anderson Award winner, in the central role of the Celebrant. (This month, Liverman will star in the Metropolitan Opera’s opening-night production of Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones.) Topping everything off, Sony Classical is re-releasing the original recording of the Mass, led, of course, by Bernstein. In conjunction with the Leonard Bernstein Office, which oversees the legacy of the conductor, composer, educator, and social activist, the release will include two CDs and a hardbound book with the text, archival photos, and new liner notes by British music journalist Edward Seckerson

The world-premiere production of Bernstein’s Mass at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., featured Alan Titus, front, as the Celebrant. (Fletcher Drake / Kennedy Center Archives)

Alsop, an internationally recognized conductor who curated a two-year tribute to Bernstein at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, Ill., a suburb of Chicago, in 2018 and ’19, calls the Mass nothing less than one of the most important works of the 20th century. “Bernstein was the greatest storyteller ever,” she said. “Everybody loved it when he would start a story. It was fantastic. And this would be the ultimate story for Bernstein. This is a story with a huge moral. This is the search for truth, the search for the meaning in life.”

Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie, who devoted a chapter to the Mass in her 2018 book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein, has a similar assessment. “Mass has more of Leonard Bernstein in it than any other piece that he ever wrote,” said the narrator, filmmaker, and leading advocate of her father’s work. “It’s almost like a musical self-portrait.”  

Ravinia’s first-ever performance of the Mass took place on July 28, 2018, with Alsop, who this year became the festival’s chief conductor and curator, leading 275 singers and musicians, including the 100-voice adult choir, Vocality. Also featured were the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Children’s Choir, Highland Park High School Marching Band, and Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot as the Celebrant. The 2019 encore presentation, which was filmed for Great Performances, featured all the same forces and artistic personnel except for a smaller number of choristers.

“The biggest challenge is just harnessing all those forces,” said Kevin Newbury, who served as stage director for both performances. “There are so many people involved. Just the sheer scale of it is a little overwhelming the first time you do it.” But he has staged the work often enough that he barely has to consult the score anymore. He and Alsop worked together on the Mass in 2008, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a group of collaborators performed it in Baltimore as well as Carnegie Hall in New York and the Kennedy Center and recorded it on the Naxos label. In addition, Newbury did another version with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2015.

Bernstein became with friends with the Kennedys during their White House years, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned him to write a major work for the inauguration of the arts center that was to be named in honor of her late first husband. Jamie Bernstein was a teenager at the time and had a front-row seat as her father carved out time to work on the massive composition. “I remember the summer he was working on it; his studio was like a little house up the driveway from the main house in our place up in Fairfield, Conn.,” she said. “He would arrive before dinner around the cocktail hour with a score in his hand and say, ‘Listen to what I just wrote!’”

Bernstein, right, at a rehearsal for the first production of his Mass in 1971 with, from left, Alan Titus and Joan and Ted Kennedy. (Fletcher Drake / Kennedy Center Archives)

The Jewish composer chose to create a daring, forward-looking variation on the Roman Catholic Mass, with additional texts by him and Stephen Schwartz, that he subtitled A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. In keeping with his wide-ranging musical interests and in an attempt to connect with younger audiences, he fused rock, jazz, and Broadway idioms with 12-tone serialism and a host of other sacred and secular classical traditions. Jamie Bernstein called it a “big ratatouille” of musical styles that boldly broke with the conventions of the time.

“The thing about Bernstein is that he really was the model of the artist-citizen,” Newbury said. “And he really engaged with everything that was going on in the world around him. And I think Mass is really his magnum opus about the way he saw the world.” Rooted in the socio-political tumult of the late 1960s and early ‘70s, the work confronts a crisis of faith and takes audiences on a communal journey to a re-imagined world of renewed peace and spirituality.

“I think it was his Mahler Eight, in a way,” Alsop said, referring to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Symphony of a Thousand, a vocal and orchestral hybrid that extols the eternal human spirit. “It was his outreach. It was a work about inclusion, about embracing (others). It was also a very American experience for him, because he was close with Kennedy. He was close with Jackie Kennedy. And the loss of Kennedy, the loss of MLK (Martin Luther King Jr.), the loss of Bobby Kennedy — these things really affected Bernstein very deeply, and this is a piece that pays tribute to JFK.”

Baritone Alan Titus, who appeared in the Kennedy Center premiere, recalls the sense of importance of the moment. “My problem was trying to separate myself from the hype, from the hugeness of the event, and delivering the music that Maestro Bernstein sat in front of me and taught me,” he said from his home in Germany. Titus recalls the performers having no more than four to five weeks to rehearse the new work, and Bernstein was still making changes days before the debut. “The music was great,” he said. “Everybody was jiving, bopping, and jumping around and having a great time.”  

But because of the negative reactions to the piece, the Mass was essentially shelved — a huge blow to Bernstein and the musical and socio-political ambitions he had invested in it. “It was like something you weren’t supposed to talk about, like a family secret,” Alsop recalled of her years around the composer. “And I could tell he really suffered about this piece.”

Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protégé, is a champion of the composer’s Mass. (Photo by Grant Leighton)

To celebrate the culmination of her seven-year tenure at the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony in 1996, the leaders of the orchestra said Alsop could perform any work she wanted, and there was no doubt as to what she wanted to do: Bernstein’s virtually forgotten Mass. At the time, she recalls, there was not even any readily available edition from the publisher. Since then, she has conducted it multiple times across the world, becoming one of the work’s best-known champions.

And her efforts, along with those of conductors like Kent Nagano, another Bernstein protégé who recorded the piece in 2004, have helped changed perceptions of the piece. More than three decades after the composer’s death, Alsop said, people are finally able to separate the composer’s music from his bigger-than-life persona. In addition, musical boundaries have become more porous, and audiences in the 21st century are used to works that cross genres and combine multiple styles as the Mass does. “To have a rock band in the middle of an orchestra is not that foreign to us today,” she said, “but in 1971, it seemed absurd to people.”

A big challenge in mounting any performance of the Mass is finding a singer who can meet the daunting musical and theatrical demands of the Celebrant. Titus, who retired in 2010 after a 40-year career, made his name with his debut in the role in the 1971 premiere. He calls it the standout event of his career. “I did The Ring of the Nibelungen in Bayreuth in 2000 with [Giuseppe] Sinopoli, and I’ve had terrific milestones in my career, but nothing as big as the Mass,” he said.

Szot, a Tony Award-winning singer who has excelled both in opera and on Broadway, first took on the role during an April 2018 concert with Alsop and the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in London’s Southbank Centre. “I knew the piece from years ago when I first listened to a recording, and I was amazed by it,” he said. “And Marin wrote me an e-mail and said, ‘Hey, do you want to do this piece?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’” The two had worked together previously on another Bernstein work, and he was sure there was no better conductor to introduce him to the Mass.

Because of the piece’s massive scale, learning, rehearsing, and performing it becomes a journey in itself — what Alsop called a “secondary metaphor” for the message of the piece. The trepidation and anxiety at the beginning are ultimately replaced with feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. “I know what the pay-off can be,” she said. “For people who haven’t gone through this journey, they don’t actually yet know what an incredible experience it will be for the audience and for themselves. I don’t have the fear anymore. I just have the knowledge of the enjoyment of the process.”

Cover of the world-premiere recording of Bernstein’s Mass

The work brings out the best in the artists working on it, Newbury said, because virtually all of them have experienced a crisis of faith or a lost connection with community and can share in its message. And that common bond and the empathy it generates communicate powerfully to the audience. “More than any other piece that I’ve done,” he said, “and I’m not being hyperbolic, it really feels like the audience and the performers are in the same space and the same world, and there is no real dividing line between who’s listening and who’s performing.”

The world has changed a great deal since 1971, when Mass premiered, yet the United States faces many similar challenges, including intense political divisions and societal upheaval. “The message of community, of standing up for what you believe in about tolerance, about acceptance, about love, about mutual respect,” Alsop said. “All of these are very strong messages throughout Mass, and it brings together such a diverse cast of people, not just ethnically diverse but generationally diverse.

“I think it is a very important message for the time we’re living in where we have to remember that tolerance is an important part of existence on this planet.”

This is an updated and augmented version of an article that appeared in Ravinia Magazine in 2018. 

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