After Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Leonard Bernstein for the 1971 dedication of the new John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, he chose a text ideally suited to honor America’s first Catholic president: the Latin Mass. In the pared-down form settled on in 1570 and in use until 1969, its words were both familiar and distant, universal, rigid, and immutable. Instead of offering a straightforward setting of the liturgical service, however, Bernstein and his collaborator, the Broadway composer and lyricist Stephen Schwartz, chose to engage with the Latin text in multiple ways through interpolated English “tropes” that comment on and challenge its assumptions.
Mass, a Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers was staged at the Boston Conservatory Theater on Friday, and repeated on Saturday and Sunday. A large and talented student cast from Boston Conservatory and Berklee College of Music was joined by a boychoir from the Boston City Singers. Neil Donohoe directed and produced, Larry Sousa, choreographed, and Eric Stern conducted. Matthew Cost did the lighting and David Cabral, the costumes.
Mass began in darkness. A pre-recorded cacophony of overlapping voices and percussion sounded over speakers placed in the corners of the house. This sonic confusion was only partially clarified by the emergence of a high soprano voice with a jagged, atonal melody sung to the opening Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy up us). The lights went up to reveal Dan Daly’s stylish set, featuring a central staircase and vaguely striped abstract panels right and left.
The Celebrant suddenly appeared in street clothes, singing “A Simple Song” (shades of Bernstein mentor Aaron Copland’s “gift”) to his guitar. This was followed by a jazzy, pre-recorded responsory Alleluia and then a Kyrie Rondo sung by a street chorus accompanied by a marching band. Dominus vobiscum (The Lord be with you) sung as a “thrice-triple” canon marked the return of “difficult” musical techniques associated by Bernstein with the words of the Latin liturgy. The Celebrant recited In nomine patris (In the name of the Father) against pre-recorded chanting by the Choir and Boys’ Choir as the Acolytes entered. The Choir’s quiet a cappella chorale “Almighty Father,” with its primitive harmonies, recalled Shaker hymn singing. This was followed by a pre-recorded instrumental “Epiphany” celebrating the world-wide dissemination of the Christian story. Energetic dancing by the ballet corps, their swirling skirts in strident tones of red filling the stage, demonstrated that this was no orderly celebration of a traditional liturgy. Instead, multiple voices would arise to confront established doctrine.
Introducing the final sentence of the Credo’s statement of belief, the choir intoned Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum (I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins), only to be interrupted in no uncertain terms by the first “trope:” a Street Singer’s “I don’t know” questioned the certainty of the choir’s belief to the accompaniment of a rock band. In the next trope, Street Singers sang a blues (“Easy”) about how easy it was it was to feign piety when they “Just don’t care.” The Acolytes brought more vestments to adorn the Celebrant as he invited the assembled crowd to pray; this was followed by an orchestral “Meditation.” Boy singers, armed with bongo drums, surrounded the Celebrant singing Gloria tibi (Glory to thee), followed by the Choir’s Gloria in excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the highest), both choruses worked out in the style of “learned” counterpoint. The chorus of street people responded with another trope, “Half of the People,” a sly reference to Paul Simon’s quatrain “Half the people are stoned / And the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowned / And the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.” How is the Church relevant when so many souls are lost? Just to be sure we got the point, the famous lines of Emma Lazarus were projected on a screen: “Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” while a soprano soloist’s mournful “Thank you” looked back to the time when she was grateful to God.
Two readings central to the Catholic Mass were occasions for individual reactions in jazzy-recitative-Broadway style. The Epistle inspired readings from imprisoned believers, whose spirit cannot be imprisoned; the Gospel-Sermon “And God Said” was a joyful parody of the Creation story by the Preacher and the Street Chorus. Members of the Street Chorus again interrupted the Choir’s pre-recorded recitation of the Credo with a series of angry tropes against an absent God. Implored by the Celebrant to pray, the choir sang a version of Psalm 130, De profundis (Out of the depths) a monumental fugue-like movement with soaring brasses in Bernstein’s best symphonic manner. Clapping, whooping dancers whirled around the Celebrant, but as he continued with preparations for the Communion service, anti-war protesters took over the singing of the “Agnus Dei,” ending with a politically charged blues-rock rendition of Dona nobis pacem (Grant us peace). Unable to bear the chaos, in a climactic moment the Celebrant threw down the chalice, which shattered on the ground, spilling the wine. Following an extended aria (“Things get broken”), he stripped off his vestments and left the stage. After a reprise of the chorale “Almighty Father” Mass came quietly to a close.
While working on his Mass, Bernstein had consulted with Father Daniel Berrigan, a Catholic priest and anti-war activist. Since the FBI warned the White House that the Latin text might contain coded anti-war messages, President Nixon shunned the premiere. In 2000, on the other hand, Pope John Paul II requested a performance at the Vatican. The Washington premiere itself involved over 200 participants. Among the instrumentalists, only the strings, percussion, and keyboardists sat in the pit; brass, woodwinds, and rock musicians were on stage in costume as members of the cast.
Scaled back somewhat from these original specifications, Boston Conservatory’s presentation of this ambitious extravaganza in all its eclectic glory seemed ideally suited to the talents of the well-rehearsed student singers, players, and dancers who took part. This musically and visually stimulating production, featuring imaginative direction, lively choreography, and effective lighting, held the interest of a capacity audience throughout—no small feat considering the variety of forces and the multiplicity of musical styles involved. A minor quibble: with all the instrumentalists in the pit, solo singers tended to be over-miked, diminishing the personality of individual voices. The plot line devised by Bernstein and Schwartz seemed contrived and often confusing. Still, this was an absorbing and ultimately moving performance of a work that can still speak eloquently to audiences.
Virginia Newes, who lives in Cambridge, was Associate Professor of Music History and Musicology at the Eastman School of Music.