A Mass for a Deeply Dispiriting Time

United StatesUnited States Bernstein, Mass: Kevin Vortman (tenor), May Festival Chorus, Cincinnati Youth Chorus, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Robert Porco (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. 19.5.2018. (RDA)

Kevin Vortman (the Celebrant) (c) CSO

Featuring the May Festival Chorus and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Cincinnati May Festival is the Queen City’s longest running musical event—in existence since 1878, and almost continuously ensconced in the city’s Music Hall for over 140 years. On 18 May, the festival’s first of two pairs of concerts opened with Verdi’s Requiem Mass. The following night, as part of a worldwide commemoration of Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, the festival presented Bernstein’s own monumental Mass, performed here for the second time in Cincinnati since the local premiere in the 1972 May Festival.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, Mass is a musical-theatrical creation freely mixing English-language lyrics by Stephen Schwartz with Latin texts from a modern version of the Catholic liturgy. Involving choral and solo singers, full orchestra, marching and jazz-rock bands, and a principal soloist called the Celebrant, Bernstein’s Mass is a two-hour-long event that aims to bridge the gap between the formality of the oratorio with the in-your-face directness of Broadway.

There’s dancing, there’s acting, there are Catholic symbols and ritual, two boy sopranos, a children’s chorus. There are several singing supporting roles, and — wait a minute — there’s not one rock band but two on opposite sides of the stage. There’s confetti, there’s theatrical lighting, there’s digital sound, there’s amplified sound, there’s the CSO in the pit, there’s a long rectangular table that functions as an altar covered in a white cloth that is hoisted up to resemble a banner or a sail that bears a symbolic stain.

I may have left something out.

The music is a mix of pop, rock, folk, blues, plus ballads sung by the Celebrant and the choirs, interspersed with stretches of orchestral interludes that evoke — not to say imitate — Mahler, Stravinsky, even Orff. There are lively moments of raga, snippets of jazz, even a few hints of patter songs in the Gilbert and Sullivan vein. An opening section is frankly atonal, though later tonality prevails.

Bernstein’s mind was fertile and creative, which freely embraced a whole gamut of ideas from an arsenal of compositional devices: fugues, canons, chorales, and dance sequences ranging from rock to ballet.

Composed in 1971, Bernstein’s Mass was written at the end of his stunningly successful career as a musical and intellectual giant. It was the composer’s heartfelt cri de coeur in a deeply troubled time. That said, many have written about it in unflattering terms. Some say Mass is dated; I feel otherwise. With its devastating depiction of the decline of hope, this is as relevant a piece of musical theatre as one could want in these dispiriting days.

That the Mass still resonates, and can still pack an emotional wallop, could be palpably felt and seen in this performance. Much of that emotional impact was due to the superb work of Robert Porco, who trained and rehearsed the massive choral forces—one hundred strong, plus members of the May Festival Chorus. Conducting the CSO in the pit and the onstage musicians via closed-circuit television, Porco formidably paced his forces, delivering an evening for the books.

Much of the success or failure of Mass rests on the shoulders of the Celebrant, which calls for ability both as an actor and a singer, plus unflagging stamina. Here Kevin Vortman was a powerhouse and sang the 120-minute role with beauty and no signs of fatigue. Vortman’s acting was on a par with his vocal prowess, especially in the tour de force mad scene at the end.

On the Town, Wonderful Town, West Side Story, and Candide are unquestionably Bernstein’s masterpieces. And most of the composer’s other ‘serious’ works are intermittently fine; they will continue to be played and sung now and then—especially this Bernstein centenary year. His Mass will continue to be performed every so often, and with each new good performance, no matter what some may say, audiences will most likely respond with standing ovations the way they did in Cincinnati’s Music Hall last night.

Rafael de Acha

2 thoughts on “A Mass for a Deeply Dispiriting Time”

  1. I incorrectly named Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy as the person who commissioned Mass. It was not Ethel, but Jacqueline Kennedy the one responsible for the commissioning of this work. My apologies.


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