LEONARD BERNSTEIN’S ‘MASS’ at the Kennedy Center

by Leonard Bernstein Mass is no one’s sentimental favourite. The “Play for Singers, Players, and Dancers,” commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971, is a crazy and infuriating ecclesiastical fever dream, flawed but hugely ambitious. It’s a beautiful iconoclastic overgrown mess, and you should experience it if you can.

It has a complicated orchestration, adult and children’s choirs, opera and theater singers, pre-recorded segments and a troupe of dancers. Desperate not only by war and environmental degradation, but also by pretentiousness and morality, he is sometimes more than a little pretentious and judgmental himself. The current Kennedy Center version has 210 performers, but stripped down to its essence, the work depicts a priestly figure called the celebrant experiencing an existential crisis of faith in the form of a dissociative mental breakdown. The depths are embodied – or perhaps disembodied – in a broken chalice. The Catholic Church castigated the work, then years later adopted it. This combined reaction seems to be the right one – a love-hate response to a love-hate mass that is simultaneously mocking, tearful and devotional.

The own psychic state of Bernstein’s chain smoker was perhaps not so far removed from that of the celebrant. The pressures of deadlines around his mountain of composition, conducting, piano performance and media projects; bashing by the Nixonian right for his anti-war views; the anguish after the Kennedy and King assassinations; and the tumult of his personal life could not have lent itself to tranquility. In this light, however unfiltered it may be, with Bernstein finishing the score even after rehearsals have begun, Mass could be considered a cacophonous and chaotic self-portrait.

In quality, it’s almost comically uneven. Over 17 sections that can be broken down into 32, the music is a thick, postmodern stew of genres. Baroque, late romantic, modern, twelve-tone, Broadway, jazz, pop, rock opera, gospel and circus elements all have their say.

You can clearly hear the heavy influences of Godspell, superstar of Jesus Christ, and Hair, a brief offhand phrase snatched almost entirely from Bizet Carmen Suite, and strong echoes of Bernstein’s own theater music and religious choral work. Sometimes the ambiance and the mallet percussion are so reminiscent West Side Story that a listener half expects to see Riff and Bernardo fighting over the Eucharist.

The libretto is a mix of Latin, Hebrew and English, sacred passages mixed with youthful chants, blasé rhymes and a bit of trilingual gibberish and pun as the celebrant loses his marbles. Steven Schwartz contributed lyrics, as did – for some of the play’s most memorable lines – an uncredited Paul Simon.

Can a creative team make sense of it all? Surprisingly, yes.

In a 51st anniversary production, the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center collaborates with the Heritage Signature Chorale and the Children’s Chorus of Washington, all under the direction of Alison Moritz and the lively baton of James Gaffigan. Hope Boykin’s choreography gives proceedings swinging kinetics.

Moritz shapes the story decisively around the sickness of the celebrant’s soul, with more than two dozen soloists and dancers at the forefront of the expanded orchestra on pews that could also be read as a sort of spiritual transit station. The meaning is that of a restless, teeming human galaxy spiraling around the celebrant in joy, doubt and a quest for great answers to the riddles of existence.

The public is invited to the ritual from the start. As cast members stroll through the aisles of the concert hall toward the stage, lighting designer and set designer Aaron M. Copp bathes listeners in a yellow-pink glow of daylight, as if we were in the greenhouse of God during creation. Costume designer Lynly A. Saunders blends sacred vestments of ornate and humble varieties with street wear, reinforcing our sense of timelessness, the breadth of humanity, the animal nature of liturgical hierarchy, and the intermittent dignity of our curious animal natures. Conductor Gaffigan brings out the bright colors of Bernstein’s over-the-top instrumentation, with a particularly vigorous percussion section providing splendid momentum.

However, all of that would come to naught if it weren’t for Will Liverman’s stellar performance as officiant. It moves with emotion from its deep, resonant baritone to a delicate falsetto voice. He complements vocal virtuosity with polished acting and body language. One moment he is a festive and commanding priest. Another, he collapses miserably on a bench like a weary tramp. He begs, comforts, shouts to his faithful. When his mind overheats, he leaps up a flight of stairs and ridicules the conductor, throwing mockery upon mockery, questioning the meaning and power of the art itself in a room, on one occasion, which treats art with worship.

So all is lost?

No – or at least we hope not. Bernstein hoped not.

The Mass relies on a traditional Catholic Mass, but it also relies on the masses. When the celebrant loses the spirit of worship, the masses rebuild their faith on the plain and simple voices of children. Work deceives and cajoles us as only Bernstein could. He kneads his obvious flaws into the fresh dough with his finally gentle and earnest intention. It ends with ordinary people simply, quietly singing amid echoes of the storm of doubt. They sweep the shadowy shards of the chalice and look up and around, seeking their best nature.

Photograph by Scott Suchman
Duration: two hours without intermission