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.
The End of the Rainbow
17 hours ago