Friday, January 23, 2009

Awe Inspiring

Mass, A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, by Leonard Bernstein, composed in 1971, for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts was performed last night (and tonight) by the Minnesota Orchestra.

Awe inspiring is the only word. With regards to many of the different aspects of the production, not only the written music score. The show included: the full Minnesota Orchestra, the Minnesota Chorale, the Minnesota Boys Choir, the James Sewell Ballet, and a couple dozen other singers & soloists. It was huge. One reason it's rarely performed.

As you’d think from the name, it’s either a reflection on physical nature of matter or the Roman Catholic Sacramental Celebration. It was superficially odd that a modern Jew would write something traditionally see as Catholic ‘classical’ music. Well received or not, the content would be much more accessible to those already interested in classical music, rather than using a Jewish holy ceremony. Bernstein obviously considered it an appropriate framework for the razor-sharp commentary. And commentary it was: social and religious. ‘Religious’ not in the sense of theology, but in the sense of how we view & practice that theology.

Surrounding the music physically as well as musically, with the Orchestra sitting center stage, are the supporting cast. The choir provides the traditional vocal support for the different parts of the mass, mostly in Latin.** The boys choir comes in as altar boys occasionally to support the adult choir. The ballet troupe provides further non-verbal reflection on the text. And, finally the other singers provide the main commentary as a congregation and a priest.

The whole shebang starts out joyous, happy, enthusiastic. The Kyrie [a prayer for mercy] begins, focusing our attention. The priest wears jeans & a button-down shirt, no priest-collar, no priest-outfit. He’s young and enthusiastic, encouraging. The congregation enters, themselves attending Mass, and are equally involved in the service. Things go down hill from there.

The ‘commentary’ gets less joyful and more critical, as the priest dons more and more of the traditional vestments (though I don't understand the color choice of starting with Easter's all white vs. the normal white & green). During the Confitior [confession], one doesn’t hear the words of the priest and congregation, just the image. (Appropriately, as one oughtn’t hear them) Half way through, one of the men who seems rather disinterested in the whole to-do, starts singing ‘what I feel I don’t say / what I say I don’t mean / what I mean I don’t show / what I show I don’t know ... What I need I don't have / What I have I don't own / What I own I don't want / What I want, Lord, I don't know”. Others join individually, variously sorrowful, angry, resentful. Here begins the disconnection between what we as Christians (or whomever) are supposed to say-do-believe and ... well, between that and reality.

Observations continue between what the Church itself teaches and how Society bends those teachings to its own ends: "God made us the boss / God gave us the cross / We turned it into a sword / To spread the word of the Lord / We use His holy decrees / To do whatever we please / And it was goddam good! "

The epistles were interspersed with reading letters demonstrating the currency of St. Paul's sentiments. At the Consecration [blessing the bread & wine], the priest has also succumbed to the crisis of faith following his congregation's ennui of faith. He prays and cries and screams to a sleeping crowd. I'm uncertain if sleeping was supposed to indicate a total disinterest in events, or if it was reminiscent of the gospels. In the prayer during a regular Mass, the priest raises the bread saying "take this bread & eat of it, this is my body which will be given up for you." The words are from the Last Supper, and what happens after that disastrous dinner party? The apostles all take a nap, leaving Christ to His crisis of faith in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course, none of the gospels paint the Son of God ranting and railing.

Commentary from the premier ranged from “the most, best, greatest, ultimate ... yada yada yada’ to “And there were those, especially among the youthful members of the audiences, who screamed and applauded and cheered and cried and said that it was the most beautiful thing that they had ever heard. ... 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.” -- NYT critic on the premier in ’71.

The counterpoint between the ‘congregation’ and the formal prayers was elegant, subtle, and at times oh so poignant.

This was my first visit to Orchestra Hall. It won’t be the last. It’s hard to tell how good the acoustics are with so many different things going on at the same time. This also made it difficult at times to understand the text with a choir, singers & orchestra & soloist all together. [ed: I listened to the broadcast tonight; with the mics right above the stage, there were parts I could hear much more clearly than in the concert hall.] Though, like opera, one could at least keep track of the general idea from the actors/dancers. The Orchestra is amazing. I’m so unqualified to critique dancers beyond “wow, that’s amazing”, but the choreography was as elegant a depiction as the words. Based upon the thundering applause from the audience, my opinion was assuredly shared. The biggest booms were offered for the lead boy soprano, who gave - @ 8 yr old - a stunning performance and the Priest.

If you’re interested, Minnesota Public Radio is broadcasting this tonight @ 8 p.m. CST. also on-line: right-hand side column as the ‘listen live” link, or with the “classical” tab in the upper-right corner of their homepage, or of course, if you’re in MN, 99.5 FM in the Twin Cities. I’m pretty sure I’m going to tune in after the boys go to bed.

See Mr. STFU&GBTW’s story about his buddy flying back to the States, then ... I’m standing at our seats after the very long applause, chatting with my friend The Author. I see someone who looks vaguely familiar. The brain starts a database search ‘identity=?’ The only reason I even came up with this potential answer is the fact we’re in Minnesota. Me: “That looks like Walter Mondale”; Author: “That is Walter Mondale”.

** if you see a music performance called a “Mass”, e.g. Mozart’s Requiem Mass, it is a collection of the music & (often) prayers set to music, which have been written to be used in a Roman Catholic Mass. There can be many different prayers or prayer settings use, so there isn’t really a ‘standard’ group of music in these.


ccyager said...

I agree.

After reading through the program the next day, I discovered the reason Bernstein chose the Roman Catholic Mass as his structure -- first, he'd always been fascinated by it and what he called its "theatricality." Second, Jackie Onassis had commissioned it for the opening of the Kennedy Center -- the Kennedy's are Catholic.

After seeing Bernstein's "Mass" in concert, it's easy to understand how he'd use the "theatricality" of the Roman Catholic Mass for his own purposes -- it worked beautifully. The one odd thing to me -- the Celebrant (priest) suffers a complete breakdown of his faith at the end, so one would think the work would end on a somber note. But no, Bernstein in his genius, takes the Celebrant's song (at the beginning), gives it to the boy soprano and turns it into something uplifting and hopeful.

I think Bernstein would have LOVED the movie "Doubt".....(smile)

Gopher MPH said...

I'm hoping I enjoy "Doubt" as well. P.S.Hoffmann is often wonderful.

The "theatricality" is indeed a contributing factor. It would allow for a fixed, previously defined frame within which to work.

One can get into a rut of mindless following as a Catholic. I personally attest to this. It's the same format and framework almost every Sunday (well, except for Advent/Lent/Easter). Sit, stand, kneel, pray, repeat as necessary.

The congregation's mindless recitation of prayers or responses must be draining on a priest's morale. I've been both a lector (reading the old/new testament) and a Eucharistic minister (i.e., distributing Communion) - there are those who are obviously interested and there are those who are not.

Bring the little children to me, Jesus requested. It is indeed our children - the altar boy - who are the future (especially of the priesthood, if the Vatican doesn't change admission policies). If the children don't pick up our songs, no one will, and those songs - of joy, sorrow, rage, and fear - will simply disappear into the night of Oblivion.

speaking of songs...
Tom Lehrer (sp?) wrote the 'Vatican Rag':
two-four-six-eight / time to transubstantiate! / ... / Everybody on your knees / fiddle with your rosaries / bow your head with great respect and / genuflect genuflect genuflect ...

ccyager said...

I had a college roomate who introduced me to Tom Lehrer. We used to sing "The Vatican Rag" regularly on Saturday night before going out. Don't know why. Just seemed like a fun idea at the time and it made us laugh. Probably eased the nerves before a date....(smile)

Yeah, in some ways the rigid structure of the Roman Catholic mass can be stultifying, but I guess for some, it's a comfort because they can be certain of one thing -- mass will be there and will be the same. Except maybe for the sermon.

Protestant services tend to follow similar structures among themselves but with variations. I was quite taken aback years ago when I attended my first Lutheran service. They have quite a mix of pomp and ritual.

I tend to bristle at the notion that the church is God's house. I believe that everywhere is God's house (or maybe inside her subconscious)as well as within each person and animal and plant. Our lives each day are "worship" and celebration....

Gopher MPH said...

At St. John's (our parish in Mich.), the priest, like all of the others, ends with: "The Mass is ended, Go in Peace". The back-up priest always said "Our Celebration is complete". I liked the 2nd one - it some how gave an impression of fullness, or fulfillment, rather than abrupt termination.

As much as one says church is God's House (then why doesn't he pay the mortgage?) ... St. Paul also wrote that our bodies are temples, to be kept clean & pure for the lord. We, too, are the temples of God. And won't she be pissed on cleaning day?

Participating during worship services keeps me from getting bored. I believe we are all called to participate in Life. In fact, I just remembered that I'm supposed to read at Mass Sunday. Yikes! I supposed I'd better work on it.

There are times when the mindless is a comfort. Not only in the search to ignore reality, but in the search to embrace it. My grandmother's funeral was a Catholic service; my friend Steve had a laid-back memorial at the funeral home; another friend had a Catholic funeral. The familiar ones let me participate on auto-pilot, while giving me the freedom to either concentrate on the words or concentrate on the person I was grieving.

Funerals aren't usually as much source of fun stories as weddings; just as well, since I'm not quite old enough to start going to them very often. (grin)