Monday, November 16, 2009

Leonard Bernstein's MASS

Cahn Auditorium, Northwestern University
November 14, 2009

I have been familiar with Leonard Bernstein's MASS--"a theater piece for singers, players and dancers" commissioned for the opening of the Kennedy Center in 1971--for a long time through its music only. I do not think I'm at all alone in this. It was not performed much until recent years, and as far as I know there are no visual recordings of the first performances--for a long time there was only one audio recording, which was more popular than the production itself. This explosion of theater (MASS is staged with over 200 performers, including a brass band, orchestra, rock band, children's and adult choirs, and dancers) existed for me as "just" music.

I grew up over-listening to the album my parents bought after seeing it at the Kennedy Center. I listened to it when my mom played it and on my own, out of our heavy sand-filled speakers, in headphones. When I went to college I had bits of it on mix cassette tapes with me. I had never seen it performed until this weekend and was really curious to see--hear--how it felt.

MASS is a challenge, giving people something to debate forever in Bernstein's absence. I can understand why people feel dared to recreate it these days. For myself, I love it but also find it cheesy and corny at times, not just dated; feel it relies on a reaching and sentimental twist to find its ending amidst a lot of devolving hyperbole. I also find it incredibly beautiful, especially in its details--more beautiful, the more closely you look at it.

MASS is also, I have come to believe, fundamentally sad. There is rebellion and catharsis, but not a lot of joy. Its anti-war themes seem less strong than a kind of personal sadness, from the increasingly well-known "Simple Song" (a perfect piece of music) to "Thank You," in which the singer grieves for a loss of feeling and gratitude. It feels old at times, but not always wise.

The desire is to take MASS apart, enjoy the bits that move and overwhelm, instead of subject oneself to the whole denim-clad, finger-snapping theater experience, but either way, I finally got to do it this weekend. The Northwestern production had too much to do--catch me up as well as woo.

One thing the performance highlighted is that MASS is difficult to perform not just because of the sheer, over populated (and non-intermissioned) spectacle, but because it requires an incredibly powerful lead in "the Celebrant." He must deliver the show-stopper first--start the piece at 100 mph with "Simple Song," which requires great precision and mature control to not let it careen sentimentally out of your hands. After that, the Celebrant has to act with most of the focus on others until the end, when he dives into a mad scene and the ending, not to mention (hah) that the part is for a baritone but veers high into what seems like tenor territory. The Celebrant is isolated, has little scripted interaction with others.

Alan Titus sang the role in the original recording, and he seems to own the part more than other singers own roles they originate, in part from having the field to himself for a long time. The Celebrant in the Northwestern production, Andrew Howard, struggled with "Simple Song" and other bits in the first half (he was often flat), but gained traction in the latter, and especially in the ending, when there is more to do onstage.

The same might be true of the performance as a whole: it did best as it got bigger and louder (although the dancers were especially good all the way through). There is not much middle ground in MASS--it goes from quiet to loud and back like somebody playing with a volume dial. The music is not served well by American Idol-y swooping and sliding, so there were parts that felt shrill and showbiz and obfuscated the pleasure of the music. The microphones (some soloists had microphones, some had headsets) were more distracting than I expected, undercutting the theatrical dynamic of the piece--they did not seem like people in church, moved to sing. It all created a funny convergence, though. Parts of MASS are shrill and showbizzy. The cumulative effect of the performance's energy at its biggest was (as the friend I went with put it) that of a rave, a Rent-y rave, which doesn't feel quite right to me (Bacchinalian rather than rebellious?). The lyrics in this performance had been toned down, with the blessings of Bernstein's daughter--gone, for instance, was the ringing phrase "local vocal yokels," as far as I could hear, from "The Word of the Lord." (Although that also meant that phrases like "his Bible and his breviary" became just "his Bible," which made me sad--I used to roll that world around in my head.)

The saddest realization that arose from seeing MASS rather than just listening to it came while watching the ending, which was obviously resolving more than lines of melody and musical themes. The last line is delivered by the Celebrant, who turns to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, and says (as a priest would), "The mass has ended; go in peace." It felt wincey--from the best of intentions--and glib, demanding our reaction. MASS uses the structure of the Catholic mass to great effect, but the journey of the Celebrant wants more meat to it with all those highs and lows--it does not feel peaceful or resolved itself. It's kind of thin.

I felt guilty for feeling disengaged, as if I were betraying my fondness for the piece and all the years I liked it when MASS wasn't fashionable. Except that I still love it. Since Saturday I have been listening--in addition to the Alan Titus recording--to parts of the recent Marin Alsop recording with Jubilant Sykes as the Celebrant, enjoying its crisp precision, although I'm not quite sure what I think of Sykes.

I don't know what to do in general with the piece--what do you do with something that is so good at being sad? And showed its age right from the start? That has an addictive quality that doesn't feel entirely healthy? Which is so spectacularly hooky and rhythmic? (You know these beautiful young NU students will hum "doo-bing-doo-bong-doo-bing-doo-bang-doo-bang-doo-BONG" at random moments for the rest of their lives.) It's a rough piece of music to be engaged with--you have to admire Bernstein for that.

Thanks to Kerry Reid for the ticket/company!

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