Leonard Bernstein's daughter Jamie received a particularly memorable gift for her 19th birthday in September 1971. She was invited to accompany her father to Washington, D.C., for the premiere of the composer's “Mass,” a work written to open the newly completed Kennedy Center.
Asked by former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to compose a new piece for the center's inaugural concert, Bernstein responded with an epic, contemporary setting of the Catholic Mass, which he subtitled “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.”
“It was extremely exciting,” said Jamie Bernstein, who will travel from New York to Oklahoma City this week for the state premiere of her father's “Mass.” Presented by Canterbury Choral Society in collaboration with Oklahoma City University, the 110-minute “Mass” calls for huge forces, including orchestra, large chorus, children's chorus, dancers, a celebrant and numerous soloists.
“The Kennedy Center wasn't quite finished at the time of the premiere, so there was a lot of banging and hammering going on. That added to my father's stress, because he was being exhorted to drop all sorts of things in the score right up till the last minute. But it was incredibly exciting.”
Due to the work's enormous musical, theatrical and technical demands, “Mass” hasn't become as well known as other works in Bernstein's impressive musical canon. As a result, a performance of “Mass” tends to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The 1971 premiere received less than glowing reviews. The New York Times critic Harold Schonberg 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.”
But as often happens with new works that seek to push the envelope — in the case of “Mass,” one that mixes musical styles (classical, rock, folk, blues), stretches an audience's listening capabilities (frequent use of mixed meter, spatial concepts, emotional highs and lows), even causing protests (many Catholics thought it too irreverent) — time tends to minimize once-extreme perceptions.
Following a 2002 concert performance in Carnegie Hall, New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini remarked, “In many ways, ‘Mass' is an earnest mess. But it got to this baby boomer (meaning himself). Here is Uncle Lenny trying to make sense of it all.”
“I think this piece was quite ahead of its time,” Jamie Bernstein said. “When we hear it now, it just seems to fit itself so much better. At the time, it seemed sort of shocking in many ways, one of which was that it mixed so many genres. You have a rock band with a symphony orchestra? What?
“These days, who cares? Plenty of artists do that all the time in performances. Musically it's less shocking. At the time (of the premiere), some people wondered whether it seemed contemporary enough while others wondered if it sounded dated. But now, it doesn't seem dated; it just seems more like vintage.
“Now we listen to it and we think it just has the flavor of that era, and we don't ascribe a value judgment to it, whether or not it sounds up to date. That's just a whole concern that has disappeared completely.