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Canterbury Choral Society will present Oklahoma premiere of Leonard Bernstein's 'Mass'

Canterbury Choral Society will collaborate with Oklahoma City University for the Oklahoma premiere of Leonard Bernstein's epic 1971 “Mass.”
BY RICK ROGERS rrogers@opubco.com Published: April 7, 2013

“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.