Tempora Mutantur: Is Bernstein’s MASS the Same Piece Now?

Bernstein, MASS: Soloists, Westminster Symphonic Choir (Joe Miller, director), Temple University Concert Choir (Paul Rardin, director), Joe Miller (choral preparation), The American Boychoir (Fernando Malvar-Ruiz, director), The Rock School for Dance Education (Bojan Spassoff (director), Temple University Diamond Marching Band (Matthew Brunner, director), student musicians from the School District of Philadelphia (Darren Lynch, musical preparation), Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin (conductor), Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 10.4.2015 (BJ)

Celebrant: Kevin Vortmann
Sopranos: Sarah Uriarte Berry, Julia Burrows, Morgan James, Meredith Lustig
Mezzo-sopranos: Hilary Ginther, Bryonha Marie Parham, Lyn Philistine, Pearl Sun
Tenors: E. Clayton Cornelious, Devin Haw, Benjamin Krumreig, J.D. Webster
Baritones: Timothy McDevitt, Kent Overshown, Nathaniel Stampley
Bass: Zachary JamesBoy sopranos: Douglas Butler, Daniel Voigt

Stage director: Kevin Newbury
Set design: Victoria “Vita” Tzykun
Costume design: Paul Carey
Lighting design: Al Crawford
Sound design: Steve Colby
Video design: Darrel Maloney
Choreography: Lawrence Keigwin
Musical preparation: Lynn Baker
Casting director: Stephanie Klapper
Production stage manager: Marcie A. Friedman
Stage manager: Samantha Flint

Reviewing the world premiere of Bernstein’s MASS at the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, I took a strong dislike to the work. It was not so much the music that bothered me as the seemingly irreverent, in-your-face nature of the text that the composer and his collaborator, Stephen Schwartz, had devised. It will be my aim here to examine why that text seems so different now.

Leonard Bernstein’s middle name, surely, was chutzpah. That quality pervades a fair proportion of his musical output, and a still larger proportion of his dealings with the world. It is evident, at the most basic level, in the capital letters of this work’s title. It is—delightfully—evident in the comment Bernstein once made to Ned Rorem: “The trouble with you and me, Ned, is that we want everyone in the world to personally love us, and of course that’s impossible; you just don’t meet everyone in the world.”

It was this presumption of Bernstein’s—and our—potential for universal lovability that I found hard to take, along with MASS’s unabashed familiarity in the face of God. The piece shared this characteristic with the Kaddish Symphony, which he had written a few years earlier, and which included in its text such passages as “Are You listening, Father? You know who I am: Your image; that stubborn reflection of You That Man has shattered, extinguished, banished…Lord God of Hosts, I call You to account! You let this happen, Lord of Hosts!”

And yet, if we look at such ways of talking to God today, and blend them with the impression that the music of both the symphony and MASS now makes, a contrasting picture emerges. In the intervening 44 years the world has moved on—I will not say forward, but certainly on—and art, like life, looks different. Populist art, or, more simply, pop music occupies a changed position in the spectrum of our perceptions.

I’m reminded of the way real estate advertising in England changed in the course of a few decades: listings used to distinguish between a Georgian house and a Georgian-style house; now the language has moved sideways, and the distinction agents draw today is between a Georgian house and a genuine Georgian house. This is precisely the same shift of meaning as has occurred between former media references to music as distinct from pop music, and the separation you will find in listings now between music and classical music.

In all conscience, I do not welcome the change of emphasis in the musical field—the shift in prevailing ideas of what is central and what peripheral—but the change is real, and I have to take it into account in my latter-day assessment of MASS. On this occasion, my first full-scale encounter with the piece since that long-ago premiere, I enjoyed it a great deal more, and not just because the performance conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and directed by Kevin Newbury was at once impeccable and thrilling, and the contribution of cast members both individual and choral equally strong. No: it is the mix of musical idioms Bernstein achieved that inevitably makes a different impression in the cultural context of 2015.

Across its nearly two-hour duration, the composer demonstrates his easy—seemingly easy!—mastery of at least three distinct styles. There are fiercely driving numbers, often in uneven time-signatures of five or seven beats, reminiscent of one of his greatest masterpieces, West Side Story. There are peaceful interludes at a caressingly soft dynamic level. And between those extremes there are bracing and calmly exhilarating moments that evince Bernstein’s affinity with his colleague Aaron Copland’s beguiling blend of down-home and street-wise.

This time around, I found myself thoroughly enjoying all of these different modes of expression, not least the populist one that I formerly found the most alien. The performance, I have suggested, was wonderful, and I do not intend to go into much detail about it. For one thing, there were too many uniformly excellent participants to name without falling into mere list-making. Furthermore, as pop music fans generally fail to realize, it isn’t possible to make a valid judgment about voices that are heard only through amplification.

Still, there are three names, besides those already signaled as conductor and stage director, that it would be simply perverse not to set down with admiration. The Celebrant, tenor Kevin Vortmann, comprehensively realized every dramatic and musical aspect of his demanding part. For the reason just stated, I cannot fairly judge his voice, but he phrased beautifully across the whole stylistic range of the music, starting with a genuinely moving “Simple Song,” and switched personas with breathtaking facility, from an all-American boy who could have stepped into MASS straight out of Copland’s Appalachian Spring, to a relatively conventional minister of religion, and beyond. Then there was an accomplished boy soprano in Douglas Butler, who sang with remarkable maturity and eloquence. And among the numerous superb orchestral contributions to the evening’s success, David Cramer’s characteristically pure and graceful phrasing of his frequent flute solos stood out.

I have long believed that the crucial difference between the rewards of so-called classical music and pop is that the former provides deferred and the latter instant gratification. So how is it that I came to enjoy the pop elements in this monumental Bernstein creation only after 44 years? That sounds like a long time for an “instant” effect. Ah well, as the Psalmist puts it, “A thousand years are in Thy sight but as yesterday when it is past, and as a watch in the night.”

Bernard Jacobson

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