Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is not the sort of thing its name suggests or something you could do in church. It isn’t liturgy, it’s music-theatre, written in exuberantly big, brash, heart-on-sleeve terms for a cast of hundreds who are usually young people – as they were last week at the Festival Hall, in a performance conducted by Marin Alsop that involved the National Youth Orchestra with cohorts of community choirs, dancers, marching bands and all.
Mass is essentially a setting of the Latin Ordinary and based around the ritual of a Eucharistic celebration. But it turns into a human drama as the celebrant – an actor/singer, here the charismatic Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot – finds his faith under assault. His streetwise congregation throw him hard questions about the Church’s failure to respond to the needs of the world. He replies with dogma that convinces no one – least of all the celebrant himself, who breaks down at the altar.
What then happens is unclear: a problem with the piece that one suspects was never sorted out in Bernstein’s mind. But there’s some sort of reconciliation as the celebrant learns that authority can’t simply be imposed, it has to be earned, and embraces a less doctrinaire faith rooted in peace and love.
Written in 1971 and very much of its time, Mass belongs to the culture of flower power, protests against the Vietnam War, and theatrical variants on the Christian narrative such as Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar. And in common with those pieces, it was attacked by 1970s Church leaders as heretical – just as it was criticised by politicians for being subversive and by musicologists for being schmalzy.
Schmalzy is a fair criticism: Bernstein’s efforts to explore religious truths in Broadway terms result in passages of sentimental kitsch and questionable taste. But at the same time there’s a powerful, idealistic energy about this strange piece. And heretical it isn’t. Bernstein was a Jew who struggled (all too sincerely) with issues of faith, and Mass derives from the Jewish tradition of contending with God – its contention transferred to the arena of Catholicism because the piece was commissioned for the opening of Washington’s Kennedy Center, a memorial to the first Catholic in the White House.
It’s admittedly a curious tribute for a Catholic president, but it was deeply felt and well-intentioned. And as last week’s jubilant performance proved, it still has things to say: uncomfortably and awkwardly but with a sense of purpose that’s persuasive. Bernstein’s gift for catchy tunes is no small matter either. And I doubt if many people left the Hall last week unmoved, unentertained or unengaged. A total package.
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