Leonard Bernstein’s Mass in Philadelphia

At first, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass seems like an answer to lots of questions no one has ever bothered to ask. Questions like, “What would happen if you mixed the Symphony of Psalms with Jesus Christ Superstar?” “Who knew that Verizon Hall has an orchestra pit?” “Why don’t all masses have bongos?” “What would it take to get Yannick to conduct wearing a t-shirt?” OK, someone from Marketing probably has already asked that last one.

But while I can’t shake the feeling that something about this piece is inorganic, it’s also, at times, amazing, and the last half hour or so is absolutely brilliant. I doubt a better case could be made for it than this ambitious, inclusive, and extremely polished production.

Bernstein, Mass (AKA MASS). Philadelphia Orchestra, 5/2/15. Conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin with Kevin Vortmann (Celebrant), full credits below.

Mass (premiere 1971) contains most of the Mass Ordinary text but it’s a theater piece about a mass, not a mass itself. The Latin text is interspersed with English “tropes” which help tell a loosely-structured story of a clergyman, called the Celebrant, who tries and eventually fails to unite a congregation. The new texts, by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz of Godspell and Wicked fame, are aggressively colloquial (sometimes dated) and, at times aggressively challenge the sacred portions.

The score is everything but the kitchen sink, requiring an orchestra augmented with a band, multiple choruses, and a large group of soloists who encompass both classical and rock technique. The music ranges from vaguely neoclassical, Stravinskian choral outbursts to musical theater numbers to blues-ish songs to a lot of other stuff. The orchestra includes electric guitar and bass, a cameo from a marching band, and a children’s chorus who at one point all play kazoos. Particularly early on, there’s a lot of prerecorded sound. For us today, this isn’t nearly as transgressive as it was in 1971, and the vaguely Jesus Christ Superstar-like pastiche, at times sounds more dated than classic. But the music is in some kind of stylistic uncanny valley: so many styles that it’s tremendously confusing, but simultaneously we never fully leave Bernstein’s micromanaged, mixed-meter sound. It’s both everything and nothing. For most of the first half, I found some nice stuff, but wasn’t really involved.

To fit all this into Verizon Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra has revealed the hall’s most obscure feature: an orchestra pit! The hall has going for a decade and the pit has never been used; no one even knew that it existed. Well, it does, and the strings are down there, sounding slightly muffled. Stage left and right house the winds and percussion and rock instruments. Upstage is the big main “church” chorus (who stayed put); the back wall was decorated by a snazzy, constantly shifting installation of tubular lights (the most important element of Victoria Tzykun’s set, lights are by Al Crawford).

This leaves most of the stage empty for Kevin Newbury’s production. (Compared to the New York Philharmonic’s semi-staged musicals, the stage appeared luxuriously spacious.) While the original production featured choreography by Alvin Ailey, this one only has one short dance interlude; Newbury presents us with a somewhat individualized, casually dressed group of citizens (the “Street Chorus,” who are also all the soloists). Newbury’s staging is fluent and natural, but very lightly drawn, understandable considering the nature of the work. For a long time the performance felt more like an accumulation of colorful and entertaining details than a dramatic event. Hey, look, Mummers (in “In nomine Patris”)! The Temple marching band! I was waiting for local celebrity Philly Jesus to show up. (He didn’t.)

The surprising thing is that when I was just about ready to classify the piece as a white elephant it completely turned on me. By the Credo, the Celebrant has gathered the vestments and symbols to look like a big time priest–I believe that is the technical term. Then the congregation, for unspecified reasons, completely falls apart, the people lose all faith, the previously disparate elements of the score are condensed into something incredibly intense and chaotic, and the Celebrant completely loses it.

Much of the success of this ending, and the performance as a whole, can be credited to the tour-de-force performance by Kevin Vortmann as the Celebrant (reportedly a late—and very fortunate—replacement for Shuler Hensley). He has the kind of glossy, handsome, legit-but-not-too-legit sound familiar from many a Broadway baritenor–appropriate for the Celebrant’s opening plea to sing a “simple song.” Of course it doesn’t stay simple, and Vortmann grew in stature as the evening progressed. He found what seemed like just the right balance of naturalism and larger-than-life charisma, all while singing remarkably cleanly, most notably in the extended mad scene. (During the bows, Yannick N-S literally bowed down to him.)

I was discussing the performance with a composer colleague yesterday. We both agreed that the last 30-40 minutes were incredible, but we disagreed about whether the mishmash of the first two thirds were necessary to achieve the effect. He thought it was, I’m still unconvinced. I also found the absolute end of the work somewhat underwhelming. It strikes me as self-derivative, a less successful version of the ending of Candide. (That may be the first time anyone has described problem child Candide as the more successful version of anything.) But maybe that’s the point–there is a kind of truce at the end, but the return to faith is only a provisional one.

During the breakdown, the work becomes most powerfully current. In the Agnus Dei, the chorus sings:

Dona nobis, nobis pacem
We’re not down on our knees, we’re not praying
We’re not asking you please, we’re just saying:
Give us peace now and peace to hold on to,
And God, give us some reason to want to!
…Give us answers, not psalms and suggestions,
Give us peace that we don’t keep on breaking,
Give us something or we’ll just start taking.
We’re fed up with your heavenly silence,
And we only get action with violence,
So if we can’t have the world we desire
Lord, we’ll have to set this one on fire!

(Listen here. Note there are some text changes on this early recording, the above quote is from the published score.)

This text is painfully topical. But as activism it is as awkward and conflicted as its score. This performance united performers from the whole city and from groups not usually represented by the Philadelphia Orchestra (at least to a certain extent). But tickets were so expensive and the was event still so closely tied to the high cultural apparatus of the orchestra that I doubt any of the disenfranchised people seemingly given voice in this text actually were in the audience. At the same time, there’s something amazing about this emerging, however briefly and belatedly, out of what on paper sounds like an anodyne, sometimes painfully cheesy exercise in ecumenical uplift.

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But this unusual relationship with institutional authority is nothing new. For all its topicality, Mass is also profoundly of its time, and not only in its particular variety of quasi-rock. It represents Bernstein’s very earnest, clumsy attempt to come to terms with the destruction and chaos of 1960s America. The amazing thing is that he made this statement at the opening of the Kennedy Center, an event where the “cheesy ecumenical uplift” would seem to be the order of the day. But that’s not what Bernstein provided. You probably know what’s coming next: a Catholic narrative in which a messianic figure tries and ultimately fails to unite an unruly group of citizens. The Celebrant implicitly represents JFK himself, namesake of the Kennedy Center and lost hope of the 1960s.* And the Mass was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy herself. It is a chaotic relic of a chaotic time, tied to events and feelings which were neither logical nor tidy.

A few more things about this performance: The Street Chorus was expert and expertly cast of a mix of musical theater and opera singers, able to collectively produce a powerful choral sound but made of soloists who could also able to compellingly deliver the “rock” solos. They, as well as Vortmann, were miked audibly but with relative subtlety, certainly a more natural sound than one usually hears on Broadway. I can’t really highlight any of the soloists in particular because the program didn’t specify who sang what. Here is the list, though:

But they were excellent. Boy soprano Douglas Butler was also exceptional, as were all the choruses. I wish I could have heard the strings better, but considering the spatial arrangements  Yannick’s overall coordination was outstanding.

Since the performance on Saturday, I’ve been seeing a lot of my department colleagues (end of semester events) and we keep coming back to this performance. We don’t seem to be done talking about it yet. It’s not just that it was an event–though it definitely was–it was a provocative, puzzling one. That’s something we don’t often get. Even if one of my colleagues still calls it the Mess.

*Bernstein specified JFK at some point, but I’m sure RFK is there too.

Photos Pete Checchia/Philadelphia Orchestra

Sanctus and Agnus Dei:

In contrast, the Confession trope, “I Don’t Know”

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