Making The Most Of 'Mass'

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 26, 2008

"I cannot judge this work," Leonard Bernstein wrote in the liner notes to the original cast recording of his "Mass." "I am much too close to it."

A lot of music critics after the work's premiere -- it opened the Kennedy Center in 1971 -- had the same problem. "Mass," which returns to the Kennedy Center today, is at once a very simple piece and a perplexing one. It isn't a Mass at all: It's a theater piece about a Catholic Mass, following the story of a celebrant who attempts to lead an unruly flock and finally has a breakdown because of his inability to live up to what they demand of him. It combines a panoply of styles: classical-modernist orchestra and folk song, blues and an easy-listening, Bernstein brand of rock. It even intersperses the traditional Latin texts with Hebrew and a bunch of Broadway-style numbers with lyrics by the very young Stephen Schwartz.

"The piece is pure Bernstein," Howard Klein wrote in the New York Times in 1971, and explained: "audacious, brilliant, excessive, self-indulgent, sentimental, touching, a cornucopia of genius poured out with no restraint." You might not think, reading this, that his review ultimately wasn't very positive about the piece.

That "Mass" will reach a sold-out Kennedy Center this afternoon is due to Marin Alsop, a Bernstein protegee who has performed the piece on occasion and has brought it, with the Baltimore Symphony, to the Meyerhoff and Carnegie Hall (where it was performed last week as part of an ongoing citywide celebration of Bernstein's 90th year). It is still a hard thing to pin down.

True, the critics in the early '70s may have been too close to it; today, it seems very much a document of its time and place. It is constructed with a funky '70s vibe, including a miked street chorus and a marching band; even in Baltimore's concert performance (which I saw at the Meyerhoff on Oct. 17), there is a lot of ecstatic, be-in-style dancing and participatory hand movements during some of the numbers.

In performing the work in venues such as Carnegie Hall, Alsop is going against Bernstein's statement that this piece "could not conceivably be done in a concert hall," but it hardly matters; "Mass" draws its own free-love aura along with it.

I, too, am far too close to "Mass" to judge it. I saw the original production when it came to New York in 1972 (I was 6); my aunt's then-husband sang the role of the Celebrant; I subsequently learned the recording by heart; and I have so internalized it that whenever I hear it performed I have a brief initial shock that anyone else should know music that to me is utterly my own.

But people have always taken "Mass" personally -- pro or con. I wonder now if the critical outcry against it (Harold Schonberg in the Times called it "a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest melange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce") was a reaction to the fact that this was clearly a very effective work even though it didn't fit neatly into anyone's idea of what a major work should be.

Seeing it in Baltimore after a 36-year hiatus helped me understand some of the objections a little more clearly. I could imagine that opening-night audience of 1972 at a fever pitch of anticipation, sitting in the darkened auditorium while quadraphonic speakers emitted the first fragmentary notes of a sophisticated "Kyrie." Then a guitar chord wipes the sonic palette clean, and the lights come up on a young man in jeans (Jubilant Sykes, in the Alsop performances) who delivers a straightforward, John-Denver-like anthem. The incongruity isn't as striking on the recording, but in person even I, who knew it so well, had a momentary flash of "Oh, no, he didn't put a cheesy pop song in his Mass!"

I wasn't prepared for the whole thing to be so visceral, so exuberant or so dated. Alsop did a wonderful job of capturing the work's spirit, with an eye on the populism that informs the piece. An earlier attempt to rehabilitate "Mass," a full-scale recording made by Kent Nagano a couple of years ago, foundered on the leaden seriousness of the conductor's approach. Alsop, by contrast, embraced sloppiness as her mentor did. Where the score calls for a marching band, she used one from a local school; the occasional musical imperfection was more than offset by the joy of kids in full regalia stamping down the aisles, blowing their trombones and beating their drums.

This is just the kind of thing that critics in the '70s looked down their noses at, but it's the kind of thing the classical music world could use more of now. They also disdained the work's melange of styles, which today the serious music world embraces; plenty of acclaimed composers, from Osvaldo Golijov to John Adams, have blended elements of different vernaculars in sprawling religious works ("La Pasión según San Marcos," "El Niño").

Still, I do not believe that everyone actually disliked "Mass" as much as they thought they did -- something Klein's quote above may indicate. I first outed myself as a long-time "Mass" acolyte in the Times a few years ago, and to my surprise, many of the critics whose derision I had feared came up to me and admitted that they had always had a soft spot for "Mass" themselves.

After all these years, "Mass" certainly has become more unified: For all of its wacky piecemeal nature, it is quintessential Bernstein from start to finish. It may help to remember that Bernstein wrote much of it under extreme deadline pressure; Spencer Mason, a member of the boys' choir in the original production, remembers rehearsing the beginning of a scene while the composer was writing the end of it. That haste is reflected in a patchwork of borrowings, and may contribute to the sense of superficiality, but it also saved the composer from overthinking.

Much is made of the fact that "Mass," an epic plea for peace and love, is fitting today, at a time of war and political transition. I'm not sure it is. If it seems more valuable now, it is because distance allows us better to appreciate it as a historic relic -- like most of the works that have made it into the classical canon. It certainly appears ripe for inclusion in that canon; I have never seen a contemporary work greeted with so much excitement as the audience on Oct. 17 demonstrated.

Bernstein, of course, did his best to keep the audience as close to the work as possible. "Mass" ends with the children's choir moving through the auditorium, pressing damp hands into those of the audience and whispering urgently, "Pass the peace." In Baltimore, not everyone was willing to pass it on -- but the kids kept right on trying.

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