Bernstein's "courageous" Mass for the masses

Is this controversial piece of music theatre a masterwork for our times?

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Bernstein championed the symphonies of Mahler in two recorded cycles.
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Bernstein and wife Felicia Montealegre set out for a night on the town.
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Few pieces of music polarise listeners as much as Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. A riotously colourful Christian mass setting by a secular Jewish composer; a vernacular libretto by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell); commissioned in memory of John F Kennedy; composed at the height of the Vietnam War and not long after Woodstock... It was one of the most potent cocktails of musics and cultures to emerge in the 20th century.

The New York Times called it “the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies’ magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce,” while one archbishop railed against it as “a blatant sacrilege against all we hold sacred.”

Forty years on, audiences are starting to see the light when it comes to this misunderstood, controversial work. Australians will have the chance to re-evaluate Bernstein’s magnum opus when it is staged at the Adelaide Festival March 9-10.

Director Andy Packer has big plans for his production of Mass. “Bernstein calls it a theatre work for singers, players and dancers, so he really was thinking of it as much more than just an oratorio or concert work,” he explains. “Rather than setting it in a cathedral, we’re setting it outside the cathedral; the cathedral itself is in need of restoration. The whole piece is about a crisis of faith both for the street singers who have stumbled upon the Mass as well as the Celebrant.”

The performance will feature large and eclectic forces: soloists, a 60-voice chorus and a children’s choir, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and, onstage, the US trio from the Absolute Ensemble led by conductor Kristian Järvi, another champion of Mass on disc.

“If people are coming expecting just a straight concert, they’re in for a shock!” laughs American baritone Jubilant Sykes, who stars in the Adelaide production and whose name has become synonymous with the role of the Celebrant since he recorded Mass for Naxos in 2009. “This is a maverick, strange, odd piece and it’s thrilling to see it performed live.”

With its blend of jazz, folk, rock and musical theatre styles, Mass is so “odd” that Sykes almost turned down the part for which he is now famous. “I was asked by the LA Philharmonic to perform it at the Hollywood Bowl,” he recalls. “To be honest, I told them no. I didn’t feel I was the right fit; I thought, ‘I don’t know how I can pull this off.’”

Luckily, a higher power changed his mind, or perhaps being wracked with self-doubt gave Sykes a special insight into the Celebrant’s own crisis. “Reading through the score and the storyline compelled me to do it. I thought it would be a great challenge to develop this guy [the Celebrant] into a true character, make him a real live man who people like and who you’re drawn to, so when he has a nervous breakdown and starts to crumble the audience has an understanding of him.”

Packer describes Sykes as the ideal actor-singer. “It’s not only his voice, which is like chocolate you want to crawl inside of, but when I listen to Marin Alsop’s recording with him singing, I understand at every moment what he is thinking.

“He says it’s like him walking along the beach sharing a story. He really wants to connect to the people in the community and share his experience.”

Almost everyone who mentions Sykes in discussion describes him as jubilant by name, jubilant by nature. But the baritone inists that a performer needs more than an upbeat attitude to play the Celebrant. “I think there has to be pathos and a little bit of melancholy too. He loves people, he’s compassionate, but I don’t think he’s understood his relationship with God and what that may cost him.”

Mass certainly cost Bernstein, who considered it his most significant achievement and despaired that his deeply-felt work never garnered the respect it deserved. At last, it seems to be heading towards a period of re-evaluation. Sykes praises the composer as “a brilliant, profoundly complicated man.

"What Bernstein attempted to do was very courageous,” he says. “The breadth of the piece in bringing all of these idioms together – no one has done it since him, not in a way that we’re left scratching our heads saying, ‘Wow.’”

But one wonders if the work has become trapped in the groovy spirit of the 1970s. Packer admits there is “a danger in seeing it as a museum piece. It talks about the Vietnam War, environmental changes…” But, as he points out, “we’re still dealing with a war of ideology and with environmental change, perhaps in a more extreme way.”

Can the religious elements of the work be appreciated and embraced by non-believers? Packer thinks there is a universal message in Mass. “Not being a churchgoer myself but having been brought up in the church, I feel one of the important things about faith is to question it all the time. The street singers are throwing some very curly questions at the Celebrant: ‘Where is God when these terrible things happen? What is the role of God in our lives?’”

Sykes is adamant that “you don't have to be religious in any way, shape or form to ‘get’ the piece. In fact, some people who are extremely religious think it’s not a religious piece, and those who aren’t religious at all come out saying, ‘Oh, it was a religious experience!’

“But I think we all are religious in some way or another; atheists as much as the die-hard parishioner. We all do things according to some god, whether it’s a god of the universe or our own personal god. You may not be practising a formal religion, but I believe every woman and every man is religious in some sort of way and Mass speaks to that in all of us.”

Mass is at the Adelaide Festival March 9-10. View event details here. Leonard Bernstein is the cover star of the February issue of Limelight. Buy your copy here.

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