We have at last caught up to it. Leonard Bernstein’s Mass returned to Carnegie Hall Friday night via Marin Alsop’s Baltimore Symphony, sounding as fresh as if it had been written yesterday.
What’s startling about the piece is its formal authority. Even those who appreciated Mass at its 1971 première seemed to love it despite, rather than for, its shape. Yet from Mass‘s form comes all its force. True, Bernstein didn’t create it from the void: Britten’s War Requiem of 1962 had similarly challenged churchly consolation with dissenting song, albeit within a much narrower musical range. But Bernstein upped Britten’s stakes, squared his subject. By assailing the high style and the higher hopes of its rangy, reverent liturgy with miked, belted, cynically coarse rock tropes, Mass asked the same question of the concert music tradition as it did of religion: what happens when the center fails to hold?
Bernstein only hints at this conflict in his opening numbers, in which a Celebrant’s folk-strophes of blissful certainty (“Simple Song”)—all dotted quarters and spiraling parallel sevenths—are not-quite-answered by a deadpan, bebop “Alleluia.” The battle isn’t really joined until “Confiteor/I don’t know,” in which a starkly chromatic setting of the prayer of confession is trumped by the now-doubtful, now-angry blues solos of six penitents. From this point on, every shift of idiom escalates Mass’s conflict. A brittle, dubious “Gloria,” the rushed and restless “Half of the People,” are quieted by a serenely surging epistle, “The Word of the Lord.” This is Bernstein at his most calmly ecstatic: trumpets skirl silver above simple triple pulses in the strings. But the congregation, unswayed, retorts in the caustic backbeats, the seven-eight vaudeville of “Gospel-Sermon:”
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.
At last, in the “Agnus Dei,” Bernstein loads all his various, conflicting, needy musics onto the head of his Celebrant, attacking him with the voice of every chorister on the stage, till he shatters his chalice and screams for peace. The cathedral is engulfed. The ensuing mad scene, “Things Get Broken,” is the broken heart of Mass, and the one in which its dual concerns are most clearly audible. In recitative carefully molded to every turn of thought, Bernstein’s Celebrant—the priest as Prospero—acknowledges the lurid spectacle of exploding the tradition (of religion? Of music? Of the religion of music?) that gave him his powers:
“C’mon, you know you loved it….
Wasn’t it smashing
To see it all come crashing
Down to the floor?”
…but goes on to wonder:
“Lord, don’t you care
If it all ends today?”
Mass is enriched throughout by the stylish yet pointed lyrics of Stephen Schwartz, whose whimsical rhymes and leftish politics made him, then as now, the Yip Harburg of his generation. You hear Schwartz most strongly in the music of the Street Chorus, whose cynical gypsies (cousins to those in Pippin and Chicago, evil twins to the earnest analysands of A Chorus Line) embodied perhaps the last cultural moment that an attitude of Broadway performance could signify contemporary America, rather than merely contemporary Broadway. But it is the breadth, the clarity, the passion and the nerve of Mass’s score that stays with you. Eclecticism is its method, its subject, and its generosity. But Bernstein doesn’t borrow his styles arbitrarily. He uses them to impart range, personality, and conflict to a piece which, after all, didn’t have to be a drama. I admire how Bernstein, in order to deal with an incendiary theme, first chose an inherently expressive design (the Tridentine liturgy): engaged skilled theatrical collaborators (Schwartz and Mass’s original director Stephen Wadsworth) to help him stretch, shape, and refine it; then fleshed out this design with a score as personal and precise as it was rich. The result isn’t an opera, but a piece that feels braver, more involving, and more operatic than many contemporary operas do.
Mass isn’t a perfect piece. That its interludes are recorded rather than live seems a pointless choice. The mad scene is long. In the finale, the ensemble, led by a boy soprano, pledge to pick up the pieces of their shattered faith with a lovely variation on “Simple Song;” it seems a bit abrupt for the devastated Celebrant to pull himself back together in time to join in the chorus. And there were small missteps in Kevin Newbury’s direction Friday night: chiefly, an eager and vocally adroit Street Chorus too blandly costumed and too generically ebullient to make the most of savage numbers like “God Said.” But Jubilant Sykes, his baritone silken and sterling by turns, made a mesmerizing Celebrant, and both the Morgan State University Choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus made a thousand joyful noises. Marin Alsop is a good friend and a frequent collaborator, but I don’t think my impression of her wizardly leadership of the score was mine alone; and the Baltimore Symphony triumphed. How inspiring to hear a piece by a composer who took such risks: who dared to be as clear as he was passionate; who time and time again put himself on the line! You left Carnegie Hall moved, thrilled, nourished, and ready for anything.