Concert Review: Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” at the Boston Conservatory

The Boston Conservatory production of Mass was mostly frustrating, but Leonard Bernstein’s score came across very strongly.

A scene from the Boston Conservatory production of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass." Photo: Eric Eric Antoniou.

A scene from the Boston Conservatory production of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” Photo: Eric Antoniou.

By Jonathan Blumhofer

At the very least, you have to give the Boston Conservatory credit for tackling so ambitious a piece as Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, which musicians from the school presented this past weekend at the Boston Conservatory Theater. Bernstein’s 1971 score, a breathtaking grab-bag of musical styles, theological arguments, and social commentary is, in many regards, his towering achievement: wildly ambitious; deeply, unapologetically personal; rife with contradictions and moral righteousness. It’s a work whose problems are never far below its surface, but whose expressive depths are real and run deep.

Written by Bernstein and with lyrics by him and Stephen Schwartz (then of Godspell-, now of Wicked-, fame) for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Mass deals with a couple of themes that were very close to Bernstein’s heart at the time, namely the anti-Vietnam War movement and something he came to call the “crisis of faith.” The latter involved aesthetic, cultural, political, and spiritual components but can be summed up as the dilemma of having and maintaining religious faith amid the entanglements and distractions of the modern world.

Mass’s plot, such as it is, follows the spiritual demise of a Celebrant leading his congregation in the Tridentine Mass. During the course of the service, he’s assailed by his flock’s doubts, trials, and unbelief and finds himself increasingly incapable of performing the duties of his role. At the climax of the Mass, the Celebrant hurls the elements of Communion to the floor, breaks down, and leaves. Peace and harmony are restored by a subtle stroke: a solo flute plays a darting melody that’s meant to represent the arrival of the Holy Spirit. The score then ends with a vision of simple, pure faith, relieved of the trappings of dogma and ritual.

So, how did the Conservatory’s production fare? As a piece, Mass is problematic. Its musical contrasts can be jarring. Bernstein thought deeply about its themes, but that’s not always apparent in the English-language tropes and texts, which have their shallow, cringe-worthy, and cliché-ridden moments. The resolution can seem tacked on, too, unless it’s handled discreetly. Sunday’s closing performance didn’t really resolve any of those in-built conundrums; rather, it added a few new wrinkles.

First, though, the credits. The orchestral playing was very good. A 22-piece ensemble is a bit slight for a score that calls for two orchestras – one on stage and the other in the pit – but this one rarely sounded thin and conductor Eric Stern kept everything moving at a good clip. Mass’s choral numbers generally came across well, too, though more voices wouldn’t have hurt in, especially, the settings of Latin texts.

As far as soloists, the standout was Evan Kinnane, one of the four vocalists taking on the Celebrant’s role (more on that below). A couple of wild moments in “I Believe in God” aside (which isn’t supposed to be sung by the Celebrant to begin), he sang with style and heart. There were other strong solo performances from the vocal ensemble – particularly in the first set of tropes after the “Confiteor” – but also some unevenness of entries (the first verse of the “Gospel Sermon” almost veered completely off-track) and pitch (not helped, perhaps, by the heavy amplification of voices).

The production’s fundamental problem was that, rather than honing in on and clarifying Bernstein’s theme of universal brotherhood and peace, directors Neil Donohoe and Larry Sousa decided to add new layers of a contemporary bent to the proceedings. Ostensibly these had to do with technology and media, though there was also a same-sex attraction motive, as well as a nod to Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant and -refugee rhetoric thrown in for good measure.

On the surface, at least, that’s all good and well: why can’t Mass be flexible, after all? But if you’re going to revise Bernstein’s theatrical conception of it, you at least need to have a clearer (and, ideally, a better) one with which to replace it.

Donohoe and Sousa really didn’t. Their “relevant angles” tack tended to feel either unnecessary or obvious or forced – or all three. At its best moments, their revisions were cosmetic and short: the smartphones, those beacons of modern technology that were out and about all through the opening “Devotions before Mass,” spent the better part of the next two hours out of sight and mind.

At other times their approach caused head-scratching. Why, for instance, during the “Epistle” movement (with its recurring references to “the Word of the Lord”), would the congregation be reciting Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” rather than the Scripture readings Bernstein and Schwarz originally incorporated into the piece? Unless you’re trying to score self-evident political points, this makes no sense within the surrounding musical, dramatic, or lyrical context.

Neither, for that matter, does chopping up the Celebrant’s role between four singers. If you want to use Mass to elaborate on same-sex concerns, by all means, have at it. But if you’re going to involve the Celebrant in this process, you need to at least appreciate his centrality to Mass’s narrative and plot. Dividing his part among multiple singers is counterproductive: it undercuts Bernstein’s dramatic conception of Mass and suggests a lack of understanding of the Mass, itself, as an act of high drama.

Bernstein clearly understood the latter: Mass’s tropes grow in intensity and violence as the rite reaches its high point; only then does everything explode. The Celebrant is the central player in this drama. As it progresses, he becomes increasingly constrained by his role, particularly as represented by his vestments, finally tearing them off in a moment of spiritual and emotional collapse and leaving the stage entirely.

Distributing the role across four different characters not only glosses over its symbolic importance, but having the Celebrant join in on songs that are directed at him (like “I Believe in God”) cheapens his ultimate breakdown and robs it of much of its dramatic power. Simply put, the emotional weight of the Celebrant’s collapse in the face of a lengthy, all-out assault from his following (as Bernstein and Schwartz envisioned it) was here totally absent. When he did fall apart in this new production, after an abbreviated time on stage (who, exactly, was leading the first third of the Mass?), it was something of an anticlimax. The creative team didn’t help anything by excising half of the Celebrant’s “mad scene” (“Things Get Broken”), though, in retrospect, this oddly truncated setting did, at least, fit with the production’s generally peculiar handling of the character.

The fact is, Bernstein, deeply observant Jew though he was, had a healthy respect for and understanding of Roman Catholicism. Much of Mass demonstrates this, from the sheer, dancing joy of the celebratory sections to the depths of conflict and despair that mark its Meditations and cries for Divine help. Yet very little of this production seemed to comprehend or take seriously the elements of ritual and theology that are very much built into Bernstein’s design of the piece. Would that it had.

Perhaps some of that problem owed to the space in which the production was given. Mass, as noted above, was conceived for the Kennedy Center, which is cavernous, and Bernstein always seemed to want it performed in similar venues. The Boston Conservatory Theater, though, is a cozy hall and its stage is commensurately small: it is crowded with twenty people on it, let alone a hundred. Shifting between the various collections of street people, dancers, robed chorus, and soloists is tricky and, while movement on and off was fluid, the stage too often felt busy and cluttered.

This had the effect of robbing the production of some measure of consistency – who are these people, after all, and how do they relate to one another? That’s a question that needs to be clarified if you’re going to make sense of the piece, and it wasn’t always answered in Sunday’s performance.

The set, too, left it an open question as to where, exactly, this Mass was taking place: the stage, with a set of stairs leading upwards in the middle and some paneling on either side, might have been the inside of a church – or it could have been the sidewalk in front of a brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue. It was all quite vague.

Sousa’s choreography ran the gamut from the lame (hopping along to the First Introit) and obvious (boys running up and down the staircase to the lyrics “In I go up to the alter of God”) to the esoteric (during the three orchestral Meditations). A couple of moments evoked West Side Story: the exuberant dance sequence during the “Sanctus” was bright and flowing, the snappy episode at the beginning of the “Confiteor,” menacing.

Overall, though, the production was uneven and spread itself too thin.

Of course, the same was often said of Bernstein and there is an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink quality to Mass to start out. The music runs from high to low and covers everything in between. The lyrics it sets aren’t always very good: is the low point reached at the lines “God is very ill/We must all be very still” in the penultimate “Fraction”? Or does it come as early as the first trope’s “I don’t know why I’m/So freaky-minded, I keep on kind of enjoying it” (the second phrase changed on Sunday, it should be pointed out, to “crazy-minded”)? Or at the mention of “local vocal yokels” during the “Epistle”? I’ve never been quite sure.

But some of its texts (Paul Simon’s “Half of the people” chief among them) are inspired and more than a few of its themes continue to speak powerfully. The bitter irony of several of the “Gospel Sermon’s” verses, for instance – slashing observations of Christian hypocrisy – still cut deeply. The congregation’s complaints and spiritual frustrations are real. And the furious “Agnus Dei,” with its driving blues-funk riffs and aleatoric improvisations, is, for my money, Bernstein’s crowning theatrical moment: a passionate, heartfelt, screaming appeal for peace (staged on Sunday, in an unquestionably fine stroke, with the cast hurling its demands from the aisles and stage).

If this production was mostly frustrating, the fact remains that Bernstein’s score came across very strongly. As music, Mass holds together remarkably well. And why shouldn’t it? It’s smartly composed. All of its elements are tightly integrated. Its mishmash of styles coheres. As with every Bernstein work, the instrumentation is brilliant. Rightly or wrongly, he thought the world of it. Even with its flaws, new and old, on Sunday that verdict seemed justified.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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