Wednesday, April 21, 2010

"The work I have been writing all my life..."

"The work I have been writing all my life is about the struggle that is born of the crisis of our century, a crisis of faith" (Leonard Bernstein, in 1977).

That life work culminates in Bernstein's Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. And the many facets of his life's work are in there. From his three neo-romantic Symphonies, his choral tapestry Chichester Psalms to his broadway shows like West Side Story. From his role as Maestro, championing 19th and 20th century composers--from Beethoven and Mahler to Shostakovich and Britten. And along with his roles as educator, activist, and provocateur, the work features a gumbo of popular music styles: jazz, blues, the Beatles, and rock-musicals like Hair and Godspell. The song-writer Paul Simon even contributed a quatrain to the libretto Bernstein co-wrote with Stephen Schwartz (the broadway composer of Godspell and Pippin). Simon's lines are:

Half the people are stoned
and the other half are waiting for the next election.
Half the people are drowned
and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.

How do such lines fit within the frame of the Catholic Mass?!? We shall see. But first, a bit about the performances April 23 and 24 right here in Hampton Roads.

The Virginia Arts Festival is presenting the state premiere of this sprawling masterwork this weekend at Norfolk's Chrysler Hall. Tickets are still available at (use the code MASS to get 10% off). The production features over 200 performers: the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, the Virginia Children's Chorus, Todd Rosenlieb Dance, and a cast of 15 soloists from all over the country (of which I am a proud member). You don't want to miss this extraordinary presentation, which will be preceded by a talk with the composer's daughter, Jamie Bernstein, hosted by Arts Festival Director, Robert Cross, VSO conductor, JoAnn Falletta, and the production's stage director, Pam Berlin.

Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to honor the memory of JFK and commemorate the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in 1971. In homage to the Kennedy's, Bernstein used the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, led by a Celebrant (baritone or tenor), and individualized it with a "Street Chorus" of soloists who interrupt the proceedings to share their doubts, questions, and complaints. A dance troupe augments the Street Chorus, amplifying the tension that escalates into a full-blown riot during communion, resulting in the desecration of the altar by the Celebrant, driven to a nervous breakdown by his rebellious congregants.

The work has been controversial since its premiere. It is a pastiche of styles and it wears its sentiments proudly on its sleeves. It is frequently provocative and irreverent, but it is neither sacrilegious nor blasphemous. These latter epithets (frequently hurled at the composer) depend upon the intent of the alleged offender. And, as noted above and below, Bernstein's intent throughout his life was to reconcile the crises of modernity with open-minded tolerance and a wide-reaching embrace of humanity. Bernstein's answer to the crisis of faith, never definitive, was always affirmative (Bernstein was invited to guest conduct at the Vatican in 1973, and a Vatican performance took place in the Millennium celebrations of 2000, facts that should put to bed any such lingering criticisms).

Indeed, one feature of this weekend is an educational symposium, "Religious Tolerance and the Arts." Bernstein's father was a Talmudic scholar and his grandfather a Rabbi. His most popular concert work is a Hebrew setting of the Psalms for the Anglican "Three Choirs Festival" (Chichester Psalms). Each of his three Symphonies explore the crisis of faith in the 20th century and attempt to answer the impossible question of how one creates art after the Holocaust. From his progressively idealistic aims as an educator (the famous Young People's Concerts) to the momentous occasions like the "Ode to Freedom" Beethoven 9th at the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bernstein actively promoted peace, progress, and dialogue. "Bernstein's Mass qualifies as a powerful lesson in religious tolerance," the symposium publicity succinctly states. If you don't like the style, the content (and intent) seems to me unassailable.

As a piece of music theater, Mass rocks. Literally. A rock band is placed within the symphony orchestra. The soloists use a variety of techniques from rock to jazz improv to the classical training of opera. Quadrophonic "tapes" are played from speakers in the house at various points throughout the work. The tensions between these eclectic elements are the very stuff of theater (and life).

The work opens in darkness, and we hear the pre-recorded sounds of atonal modernism intone the Kyrie. The Celebrant enters, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, carrying a guitar, and resolves the musical tension with the most famous song (not aria!) from the Mass, "Simple Song." "Sing God a simple song, lauda, laude." That refrain will recur at pivotal moments throughout the evening, as a unifying motive, a musical and programmatic "theme" of unadulterated beauty and simple harmony.

The congregation of Street Choristers enters the scene--through the house--in music that sounds closer to a circus than church, and literally sets the stage for the ensuing proceedings. The Symphony Chorus and Children's Chorus sing the Latin text of the Mass proper, and the Street Chorus soloists enter the fray, commenting on the action like a modern, pop-culture influenced version of a Greek chorus. As the service continues, the Celebrant is increasingly caught in the trappings of ceremony--his vestments become more elaborate, the Altar more adorned. The Street Chorus interruptions ratchet the drama up, notch by notch.

In music (again, as in life) there is always tension between dissonance and resolution. For Bernstein, this musical struggle mirrors the aforementioned crises of modernity: those of faith, progress, and peace. The "Meditations" in the Mass--orchestral "interludes" that occur when the "congregation" is at prayer--are rife examples of this dichotomy and its processes. Echoing some of the composers Bernstein championed (ie: the 2nd meditation has a fleeting snippet of the "Joyful, Joyful" theme from Beethoven's 9th, "Ode to Joy"), the Meditations feature beautiful and engaging music for the orchestra. They are among the most frequently played of Bernstein's orchestral excerpts for their musical substance. In context, they also serve the drama by heightening it.

Where its eclecticism was criticized and the pastiche aspects of the score held up as faults, these features, 40 years later, appear as virtues. Bernstein weaves together themes from all three choral ensembles--the symphony, children's and street choruses--and quotes the brooding meditations in the Celebrant's "Fraction anthem: Things get broken." This 15 minute scene is a tour-de-force for the leading man, and is among a small handful of great "mad scenes" for male singers. One of the other such roles is from Benjamin Britten's first opera, Peter Grimes, the premiere of which the young Bernstein conducted at Tanglewood.

After failed attempts to hold it together, the Celebrant literally loses it, and leaves the stage--and leaves everyone within earshot--in befuddled disbelief.

"Having tried all other routes toward Faith and failed, the answer (a pure, diatonic trumpet motive) turns out to be in your backyard, where you least look for it..." (Bernstein on his Symphony no. 2, "The Age of Anxiety").

The same quote (substitute a vocal for the trumpet solo) equally applies to the end of Mass. The beautiful and hummable theme of "Simple Song" returns and unites the community in music and spirit, in one of the most moving and affirmative statements of the war-torn 20th century. Like many a great masterpiece, the sum total of the work is far greater than its individual elements. Over the course of its hour and 3/4's Mass has a cumulative effect that is singularly powerful and profoundly moving.

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