Bernstein's 'Mass' returns to Baltimore, as provocative as ever

Leonard Bernstein never stopped searching for answers to age-old questions of life, love and death; never stopped seeking a way to bring disparate peoples together, to make them feel, to care, to hope.

That search animated the incisive, riveting performances Bernstein conducted of works by Mozart, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky and, especially, Mahler. The same yearning for truth and faith fueled many of Bernstein’s own compositions, nowhere more so than in an astounding and confounding creation from 1971 — “Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.”


Last performed in Baltimore a decade ago and now being staged in celebration of the Bernstein centennial year, “Mass” will be presented by the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University with more than 500 participants from throughout the community on Oct. 26 at New Psalmist Church.

Presiding over all those forces will be Baltimore Symphony Orchestra music director and Bernstein friend Marin Alsop, who memorably conducted “Mass” with the BSO in 2008; their recording was a Grammy Award nominee for best classical album in 2009.


Alsop has championed the work in London on two occasions in recent years and, last July, led “Mass” to acclaim with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.

“Some pieces feel very much of their time,” Alsop says. “But while it has references to the ’60s and ’70s in it, ‘Mass’ really is timeless. It translates even more to the time we’re in now.”

Written for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, the work fuses portions of the Roman Catholic Mass, sung in Latin, with additional words in English by Stephen Schwartz (of “Godspell” and “Wicked” fame) and Bernstein. Paul Simon, who earlier this year concluded what he said was his final tour, contributed a few choice lines as well.

The extra text fuels the theatrical side of the “Mass” as the Celebrant leads an increasingly restless congregation in a service. Each portion of the liturgy is expounded upon, dissected and challenged along the way.

The Celebrant, who starts off musically in a tender, folk-rock mode, ends up performing a full-blown mad scene in the grand opera tradition. “How easily things get broken,” he sings, as he loses control of the people, himself and his faith.

But, gradually, reason and common purpose return in the closing minutes by means of a simple handshake of peace, a scene Bernstein, who died in 1990, once described in his own quintessential way: “The chain of embrace grows and threads through the entire stage, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside.”

Propelling and underlining the dramatic arc of “Mass” is an extraordinary variety of musical styles and myriad instrumental colors. In addition to a full orchestra, the score calls for a marching band, electric instruments, multiple choirs, pre-recorded tape and even kazoos. Choreography is a major part of the package, too (no less than Alvin Ailey devised the dances for the 1971 premiere).

Getting a handle on all of this eclecticism can be daunting.


“There’s a journey just in listening to the piece, but the greater journey is working with all the performers from start to finish,” Alsop says. “Usually, you have a dedicated rehearsal period and you’re sort of held hostage by that. The most challenging thing this time is working on a schedule when the performers are trying to go to school, too.”

Those student participants include the Peabody Opera Theatre Orchestra, Peabody Singers, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Preparatory Wind Orchestra and members of the conservatory’s BFA Dance Program.

Choral contributions will come from the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and additional vocalists recruited from Baltimore City College High School, Baltimore School for the Arts, Johns Hopkins University and New Psalmist Baptist Church.

“We’re tripping over each other a little bit,” Alsop says, “but I think it’s going to be fine.”

Holding together the disparate musical ideas in “Mass” is a big enough challenge by itself. Making a cohesive statement out of the assorted theatrical elements is just as daunting.

For some observers, all of that eclecticism is unpalatable. “Mass” generated more than a few attacks in the press in 1971 and has continued to draw fire in some quarters ever since, but has steadily gained recognition as a major Bernstein achievement.


“I was one of those people unsure of it,” says Peabody Opera Theatre managing director Samuel Mungo, who is directing this “Mass” production. “Honestly, the piece has always scared me. I’ve read so much about how it’s this big mess. But the more you dig into it, the more sense it makes.”

Bernstein was keenly aware of the tensions in America when he composed “Mass,” especially the Vietnam War and the protests it engendered. It was the era of civil rights and setbacks, too, along with friction between conservative and liberal camps in the church over sex and politics.

There are traces of all of that in the piece. Many lines that had a very specific sting in 1971 have hardly lost their bite:

“God made us the boss … We use His holy decrees to do whatever we please … Dark are the cities, dead is the ocean … Find a freedom to demolish while you polish some award … There are local vocal yokels who know how to collect a crowd; they can fashion a rebuttal that’s as subtle as a sword … Oh you people of power ... you may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow. So we wait in silent treason until reason is restored.”

When Alsop first conducted “Mass,” in 1996 with the Eugene (Ore.) Symphony, she aimed to recreate something of the original flavor of the work.

“It was tie-dyed and hippie,” she says of that performance. “Since then, I haven’t wanted to revisit that approach.”


Instead, Alsop has sought to provide contemporary resonance.

For the Ravinia Festival, a production directed by Kevin Newbury, new texts were substituted for the part of “Mass” where, instead of scriptural readings, congregants read letters. One referred to leaders “who are using hate, fear and lies to separate us from each other.” Another expressed the desperation of parents separated from their children at the Mexican border.

“The audience started applauding after those letters were read,” Alsop says. “That was really something. People from the Bernstein estate were there and said they felt that he would been on board with this. It didn’t change the music at all.”

That method of bringing today’s headlines into the 47-year-old “Mass” is being applied by Mungo to the Peabody production.

“Instead of the Vietnam War, we’re dealing in our time with Freddie Gray,” the director says. “Instead of sexual liberation, we’re dealing with sex scandals in the church.”

Video projections will be used in the production to emphasize those issues, but Mungo is not aiming for an over-the-top staging.


“You don’t have to bring the circus to this piece when you already have a marching band and kazoos,” he says.

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For Peabody alumnus and “Chicago Fire” actor Curtis Bannister, who is tackling the daunting role of the Celebrant for the first time, “Mass” is extra-relevant to Baltimore today.

“The city is very different from 2008, when the BSO performed it,” Bannister says. “The time is very different. That will give ‘Mass’ a different feeling and poignancy. I think it’s going to be absolutely uplifting. And performing it at New Psalmist will draw in people from very different parts of the city.”

Mungo likewise sees the potential of attracting a broad audience to a work that Alsop describes as “inter-generational and diverse on every level.”

“This is a time of fracture and separation,” Mungo says. “Bernstein’s answer in ‘Mass’ is that we should look to the better angels of our nature, we should look to each other.”