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.
“The other aspect of it that has subsided completely is the degree to which it shocked the Catholic Church. I only wish my father had lived long enough to see ‘Mass' being requested by Pope John Paul II for a performance in the Vatican.”
Finding its place
Bernstein's “Wonderful Town,” “Candide” and “West Side Story” have become musical theater classics thanks in large part to their memorable scores and expert story telling. His orchestral works, notably the “Symphony No. 1” and the “Serenade after Plato's Symposium,” are equally revered. Yet “Mass” is a hybrid that doesn't fit neatly into any one musical style.
“What's funny about ‘Mass' is that it has this sort of fervent cult around it,” Bernstein said. “There are certain people who discovered ‘Mass,' often in their youth, that just got obsessed with it. Because it's so rich and it has so much emotional power once you kind of get under the skin of it.
“It's so harrowing when you go through it and come out the other end. ‘Mass' really takes you through a whole wilderness and brings you out the other end. I'm in the habit of saying that it takes a village to put on ‘Mass.' That's why a university (collaboration) is perfect, because you've got everything you need right there. You've got the whole community.”
When writing a new piece, composers rarely concern themselves with what the audience reception will be for the work's premiere. It's like trying to predict the outcome of a horse race. There are simply too many unknown factors at work.
Reaping the rewards
More than 40 years since its premiere, “Mass” remains a challenging work for performers and audiences alike. But for those willing to approach it with an open mind and ears, the rewards can be plentiful.
“What I'd like people to take away from this is a new understanding of how amazingly polymath my father was and what a big heart he had,” Jamie Bernstein said. “And how dedicated he was to trying to express some of the feelings that we have in our contemporary life that are so hard to put into words or put into artistic expression.
“They're some of the deepest, toughest feelings we have about who we are and what our existence means and what we hope for the future. Really, some of the toughest stuff we think about. It was really his most ambitious work I think.
“People would always ask him what was his favorite piece of all the ones he had written. And he would always say, ‘Oh, they're like my children. How can I pick a favorite?' But if he was really pushed, he would say that his favorite was ‘Mass' because it was his most ambitious work and it was also in a way his most misunderstood work. And it had the most of him in it.”
Canterbury artistic director Randi Von Ellefson will conduct the local premiere. He'll be assisted by OCU orchestra conductor Ben Nilles, OCU director of opera and music theater David Herendeen, New York actor and OCU grad Scott Guthrie as the celebrant and Canterbury Children's Chorus director Judith Willoughby.