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Bernstein’s <em>MASS</em>: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018
08 Apr 2018

Bernstein's MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

In 1969, Mrs Aristotle Onassis commissioned a major composition to celebrate the opening of a new arts centre in Washington, DC - the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, named after her late husband, President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated six years earlier.

Bernstein’s MASS: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

Photo credit: Mark Allan

 

Leonard Bernstein accepted that commission and the result was MASS , a ninety-minute ‘Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers’ which was premiered on 8th September 1971, and which placed the Latin Catholic Mass at the core of an interrogation of faith.

Humphrey Burton, Bernstein’s biographer, suggests that Bernstein’s experience of performing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, at which a Catholic Mass was said, inspired his decision to explore the historical and spiritual significance of a ritual which is at the heart of humanity’s relationship with the promises of Christianity. However, the Preface to the composer’s Second Symphony, composed twenty years earlier and titled The Age of Anxiety after W.H. Auden’s poem, states, ‘The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith’, and it was a search which continued through Candide, the Kaddish Symphony and so many of Bernstein’s works, suggesting that the pursuit of theological meaning in his modern world was in fact Bernstein’s driving preoccupation and inspiration.

1971 was a moment of crisis and change for the US. Peace protests against the six-year-long Vietnam War were escalating, and images of the shooting by the National Guard of four protesting students at Kent State University were vivid in the minds of many. In the domestic field, December 1970 had seen the devaluation of the US dollar at the end of the most inflationary year since the Korean War: taxes and unemployment figures were high and climbing, and the Nixon administration’s new economic policy caused discontent at home and in Latin America and Cuba. Moreover, President Nixon announced his plan to visit China, hoping to end the long confrontation between the US and the People’s Republic.

MASS was thus certainly ‘of its time’. The question I asked myself as I took my seat in the Royal Festival Hall for the first of two performances, directed by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly and conducted by Marin Alsop, who studied with Bernstein, was: what messages - philosophical, spiritual, political, musical, artistic - does it have for our time?

In 1971, Catholic bishops condemned the work as blasphemy; in 2000, Pope John Paul II requested that Bernstein’s MASS be staged at the Vatican, a wish that was fulfilled in 2004. This performance was described as a ‘new staging’, updated for Bernstein’s centenary year; in fact, it was a re-working of Kelly’s 2010 staging, also conducted by Alsop, and to the projected images of the Kennedys, flower-power peace protestors and Martin Luther King were addended a roll call of recent presidential incumbents from the Bushes to Obama to Trump, and images of last month’s March For Our Lives rallies in the US, in which hundreds of thousands of student called for action against gun violence.

Strangely, this visual argument for ‘relevance’ made me ‘lose faith’: in the sense that it seemed to confirm that both the promise of theological doctrine and practice, and the human faith embodied by the believers, campaigners, leaders and followers whose faces flashed before our eyes, had been shown to be flawed or misguided, ending in failure.

Fortunately, the performance itself was more uplifting, involving more than 400 hundred young performers - representing the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Streetwise Opera, the Southbank Centre’s Voicelab, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and other community groups - who spread across the extended Festival Hall stage, danced on the central platform, looked down from the rear and side galleries, marched with their brass instruments blaring down the aisles, carried candles and assembled across the breadth of the Hall. Dressed in concert black, rainbow-hued ti-shirts, street-gear, vestments, they represented all worlds, all times.

I don’t know about faith, but if I’d been conducting such multitudes, I’d have been doing so on a wing and a prayer! Marin Alsop - a diminutive but authoritative figure on a podium stage-right, nestled among the members of a rock band, facing the orchestral wind players - in contrast, was a portrait of calm control. Tele-screens had been positioned in the orchestral ranks to overcome the obscured sightlines but those playing at the rear must still have had a difficult time, in the often dimly lit Hall, and it is a credit to their maturity, confidence and professionalism that the ensemble was so strong.

Alsop, a long-time advocate for MASS, repeatedly smiled encouragingly at the young performers. I feared that the quasi-anarchy of the rock-blues protest song which disrupts ‘Dona nobis pacem’ would overwhelm audience, performers and conductor alike, but, no: Alsop’s raised fist punched sharply to the floor, signally a remarkably instantaneous silence, as the frustrated, despairing Celebrant smashed his sacraments and hurled his chalice to the floor - a very human response to spiritual responsibility and frustration.

Bernstein’s generic eclecticism has inspired some vicious criticism. Writing in the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg accused Bernstein of creating with MASS ‘a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce’, while critic, musicologist and amanuensis to Stravinsky, Robert Craft, contemptuously condemned the work as ‘Mass, the Musical’.

The blues (in the Confiteor) sits alongside gospel (in the Gloria, interwoven with chant). Christian hymns jostle next to Hebraic intonations (‘In nominee patris’). Folk song (at the premiere, Bernstein is reported to have said to Aaron Copland, of the closing chorale, ‘That’s you, baby’) and musical theatre (finger-clicking straight from West Side Story) share the score with operatic a cappella (‘Almighty Father’ could have been lifted from Candide). Then, there are the alternations between pre-recorded music (representing the fossilization of faith, perhaps?) and live performance. The microphone balance was not always perfect in the Festival Hall. I confess I felt rather ear-beaten but the diversity, and by the occasional disjunct between stylistic levity and spiritual magnitude.

This registral mismatch is in evidence, too, in the libretto (by Bernstein in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz), which is as likely to thrown up a cliché as a clinching one liner such as ‘Living is easy when you’re half-alive’. The rhymes may be perspicacious at times - in the Gospel-Sermon ‘God Said’, the soloists sings an all-too-contemporary reminder, ‘God said to spread His commands/ To folks in faraway lands;/ They may not want us there,/ But man it’s out of our hands.’ - but the words of Auden kept surfacing in my mind: ‘“You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusion.’

The only named solo role is that of the Celebrant, and Tony Award-winning Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot met every one of the role’s many challenges, encompassing the extensive tessitura effortlessly, projecting with a powerful urgency - of both hope and anger - and employing a sweet head voice which was superbly centred and controlled. Szot had the sensitivity to imbue the ‘Simple Song’ with pure sincerity and the stamina to negotiate the long soliloquy, ‘Fracture’, with compelling intensity. Every emotional ounce of the Celebrant’s trial, torment and reconciliation was communicated.

The Celebrant essentially represents ‘Christianity’ and is pitted against the ‘Street People’ who are unnamed, who challenge his assurances: ‘I believe in God, but does God believe in me’, cries a disillusioned rock singer. Those taking the principal, unnamed solo roles made convincing individuals of the protestors and hippies, creating effective narrative. The three treble soloists, Maia Greaves and Freddie and Leo Jemison, were similarly impressive, their composure, vocal accuracy and theatrical presence remarkable for their tender years. The dancers, clad in drab beige and cramped on the central platform, did not really have the opportunity to shine, however.

This is an exciting month for the Southbank Centre. This performance of MASS (which was repeated the following evening) initiated a Young People’s Weekend - comprising educational activities and wrap-around events including an education project with Year 9 students at Lilian Baylis Technology College - while next week witnesses the launch of Composers’ Collective, a new year-round initiative connecting composers at all stages of their careers with a variety of eminent composers. Moreover, Monday 9th April will see the reopening of the newly-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. It’s good to be reminded of the need to have faith in music, in art and in the young people who are humankind’s cultural and spiritual future.

Similarly, whatever one’s misgivings about MASS’s ambitious striving for universality and plurality - in theological and musical terms - it’s good to be reminded too of the historical, perhaps inherent, relationship of faith and art. In ‘I believe in God’, Bernstein pushes home this relationship: ‘I believe in one God,/ But then I believe in three./ I'll believe in twenty gods If they'll believe in me./ I believe in F sharp./ I believe in G./ But does it mean a thing to you/ Or should I change my key?’ Candide and Cunegonde offer a response to such questions in the final chorus of Candide: ‘The sweetest flow’rs, the fairest trees/ Are grown in solid ground.’ Or, as Bernstein put it in the liner notes to the 1977 Deutsche Gramaphon recording of The Age of Anxiety: ‘Faith turns out to be in your own backyard … where you least look for it, as in this glass of orange juice I am holding in my hand. There is God in the orange juice, for sunshine is there, earth, vitamins …’

So, we must grow our own gardens, and our own faith. And, at the Festival Hall, Kelly, Alsop and the multitude of young performers reminded us that if we worship at the altar of music and art, the best of all possible worlds just might be attainable.

Claire Seymour

Leonard Bernstein: MASS

Conductor - Marin Alsop, Director - Judy Kelly, Celebrant - Paulo Szot, Treble soloists - Maia Greaves, Freddie Jemison, Leo Jemison, Lead Vocal Coach - Mary King, Designer - Michael Vale, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Singers (from Southbank Centre’s Voicelab, Avanti House Secondary School, The Choir With No Name, Finchley Children’s Music Group, Millennium Performing Arts, Streetwise Opera, Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Woven Gold), Visuals (Yeast Culture & Lilian Bayliss Technology School).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Friday 6th April 2018.

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