Bernstein’s ‘MASS’ echoes through the decades

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Messages of subversion and hope from his 1971 piece have a contemporary flavor


  • The Los Angeles Philharmonic’s performance of Leonard Bernstein's "MASS” with Gustavo Dudamel conducting in February. Photo: Craig T. Mathew/Mathew Imaging

In 1971, President Nixon received a warning from the FBI: Leonard Bernstein, the famous composer of “West Side Story,” had written a piece of music that posed a threat to the country. The piece, called MASS, a work of musical theater for the stage commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was having its U.S. premiere at the inaugural gala of the Kennedy Center.

The Bureau believed MASS might have “anti-war messages” hidden in its Latin text, and “that Bernstein was mounting a plot ‘to embarrass the United States government,’” according to Bernstein’s official website.

Although both critics and general audiences have had mixed reviews of the MASS over the years, the piece may finally be having its moment. This month, the Mostly Mozart Festival at Lincoln Center is staging MASS in celebration of Bernstein’s centennial.

MASS is a piece of music unlike any other. Instead of being a traditional musical setting of the Latin liturgy, Bernstein’s MASS is an eccentric mish-mash of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel and folk music that questions authority, both religious and political. A cross between a religious service and a Broadway show, MASS puts religious texts, secular words, a boys’ choir, dancers and rock musicians all on one stage. The result is a daring, subversive piece, which reflects the turbulence of the Vietnam was era through its bold experimentation with genre and musical convention.

For its staging at Lincoln Center, the Young People’s Chorus of New York City, SF Opera Lab curator Elkanah Pulitzer and conductor Louis Langrée are all coming together to produce this eclectic piece of art.

Stephen Schwartz, MASS’s original lyricist (and the famed composer of “Godspell” and “Wicked”), is coming to work on the show and give a pre-concert talk. Both performances are nearly sold out; many attribute its renewed popularity to the contemporary events, which, they say, have some parallels to the late 1960s.

“Nowadays, it seems as though we are watching historical progress unravel and reverse before our eyes,” says Nicole Fragala, a mezzo-soprano currently in rehearsal for a production of MASS at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois. “It has left us with the ache of cynicism or hopelessness.”

Soprano Kristina Bachrach, a recent winner of the Ziering-Conlon art song competition, shares the same sentiment. Bachrach believes that “the piece, as timely today as ever, stands as a beautiful testament to what can happen when disparate members of a large community unite to achieve a common goal.”

Bachrach also appreciates the wide-ranging nature of the piece, saying that “Bernstein was a hero and pioneer for his work blurring the line between what was considered ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ American art,” and that MASS is a testament to that legacy.

Faye-Ellen Silverman, a composer and professor of music history at Juilliard and at New York University, is also grateful for the inclusive quality of Bernstein’s music. Silverman said she values how Bernstein, whom she remembers as “a larger-than-life figure,” incorporated “Latin and jazz rhythms ... from popular music” into MASS, and took “musical risks” with his works that other composers were not willing to take.

His genre-breaking music and national television appearances made classical music accessible to millions of Americans, and this appreciation of activism and inclusion is evident in MASS perhaps more than in any other piece of his music.

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