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Pilgrim's Exemption: Skipping 'Mass'

Kennedy Center, 1972
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Leonard Bernstein entering the Kennedy Center Opera House for a performance of Mass in 1972 (photo from the Library of Congress) -- see also Bernstein's Notes on Mass in the Library's collection
One of the self-proclaimed highlights of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's season is Marin Alsop's revisiting of Leonard Bernstein's oh-so-1971 theater piece Mass. She has taken her rendition of this sprawling, over-the-top work on the road after three performances in Baltimore, to Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn, and on Sunday back to where it all began, the Kennedy Center. Ticket sales have been robust, to say the least, and the critical reception has been almost uniformly gushing, which seems to indicate that my opinion of Mass -- negative -- is in the minority. The work has visceral appeal, especially to people who remember the Age of Aquarius first-hand. I remember it, but to my ears the only thing worse than the kitschy, outré mess of styles in Mass is how badly it has borne the test of time. In any case, Ionarts is not reviewing Mass, but readers may enjoy reading the following comments clipped from the many reviews, press and otherwise:

Anne Midgette, Making The Most Of 'Mass' (Washington Post, October 26)
I wonder now if the critical outcry against it (Harold Schonberg in the Times called it "a combination of superficiality and pretentiousness, and the greatest melange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce") was a reaction to the fact that this was clearly a very effective work even though it didn't fit neatly into anyone's idea of what a major work should be.
Anthony Tommasini, Youthful Choristers Imparting New Life (New York Times, October 26)
Some pieces that seem trendy at their birth soon fade away. But the essence and achievement of Bernstein’s “Mass” have become clearer over time. In other scores, like his loftily titled “Jeremiah” Symphony, Bernstein was perhaps guilty of self-conscious striving for profundity. But “Mass” was driven by a deeply personal agenda. [...] A lingering criticism of “Mass” is that with his brash mixing of pop and classical styles, Bernstein came across as just too hip. But the evocations are expertly done. And today such blending of styles is commonplace. Young composers, who disdain categories, borrow from any style they care to. And why not?
Joe Banno, BSO Makes Bernstein's 'Mass' Something to Celebrate (Washington Post, October 18)
As performed Thursday at Meyerhoff Hall by the Baltimore Symphony, under Bernstein protege Marin Alsop's disciplined baton, the seldom-revived "Mass" re-emerged as the moving and visionary piece it's always been -- arguably the best thing Bernstein ever wrote.
Tim Smith, Despite flaws, BSO's 'Mass' is compelling (Baltimore Sun, October 17)
The composer was onto something brilliant with his shameless mix of musical styles, reflecting the diversity of the real world; the nuances that people find in matters of dogma and ritual; and the many, often secret ways they part company with the authority of church or state, even while going through the proper motions.
Mark Adamo, Cathedral, Engulfed (Mark Adamo Online, October 26)
What’s startling about the piece is its formal authority. Even those who appreciated Mass at its 1971 première seemed to love it despite, rather than for, its shape. Yet from Mass’s form comes all its force. True, Bernstein didn’t create it from the void: Britten’s War Requiem of 1962 had similarly challenged churchly consolation with dissenting song, albeit within a much narrower musical range. But Bernstein upped Britten’s stakes, squared his subject.
T. L. Ponick, Enlightening 'Mass' (Washington Times, October 28)
Mawkish and sentimental, the work oozed the kind of New Yorky armchair agitprop skewered by Tom Wolfe in his book "Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers." "Mass" was, in effect, Mr. Bernstein's confused classical response to the radicalized 1960s, wrapping its garbled antiwar, anti-Nixon vibe in psychedelic, feel-good packaging reminiscent of the groovy Day-Glo brotherhood portrayed on the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's" album cover. The composer used the Roman Catholic Mass as a frame-tale around which to wrap his secular approach to religion. With an assist from "Godspell" composer-lyricist Stephen Schwartz, Mr. Bernstein's book is a crazy quilt of liberation theology and situational ethics. Worse still, the climactic smashing of the Eucharist near its close is pure sacrilege for practicing Catholics.
My favorite part of the above review is the reference to "Miss Alsop" in the penultimate paragraph, which is the first time I have seen that form of address applied to a woman in her 50s in print in decades. And, the best for last -- Martin Bernheimer, Bernstein’s Mass, Carnegie Hall, New York (Financial Times, October 28)
A restless maybe-genius, [Bernstein] vacillated between conducting, composing, piano-playing, educating and serving as a cultural hero. His most grievous fault may have been a short attention span. On Friday, Marin Alsop led a cast of hundreds in a noble, possibly futile, attempt at aesthetic resuscitation. The object of her loving labour was Bernstein’s Mass. Profoundly showbizzy, pompously pious and pretentiously trendy, it was a mess when it inaugurated the Kennedy Center in 1971, and it still is a mess.
Bernheimer's review is right on the money. After all the current attempt to resuscitate Mass, I think Harold Schonberg had it right on this one.

The latest news, according to Tim Smith, is that the BSO has taken on some serious debt because of Mass, some of it as yet unpaid. [Clef Notes]


jfl said...

Which, in short, is why I love, adore, and revere (fellow 'Munichian') Martin Bernheimer.

jfl said...

P.S. Justified criticism not withstanding, it was good to have had the opportunity to judge for oneself (not me, unfortunately) and I suspect it was a very good move (financially too, ultimately) for the BSO. And selling out halls across the East Coast with classical music, even if it is Bernstein, is commendable, in any case.

Garth Trinkl said...

Thanks for taking the time to gather all of these responses, Charles. The revival crept up on me, by which time it was long past time to be able to get an affordable single ticket to the KC.

I had thought of listening to my Harmonia Mundi Kent Nagano promo copy of Mass, as recorded in Berlin in 2003 or 04, but I could not quite find the time to do so, having just received the Adams/Sellers/Ramanujan Flowering Tree oratorio set to digest (as recorded in London).

(I'll assume that you will be adding a reminder to your calendar that John Adams will be speaking at Politics and Prose on Nov. 12 at 7 PM. Thanks.)

Chester said...

I used to think that the Mass was a failure but now I'm starting to think that it is misunderstood and if not a masterpiece, a worthy work.

But why does Bernheimer sound so sour in that posted excerpt? "maybe-genius"? Haven't we moved beyond the "stretched too thin" stereotyping of Bernstein's achievements?

Anonymous said...

Martin Bernheimer, sour? This is news? I thought he had it trademarked.

fredösphere said...

When you discover a sore that will not heal, it's not unreasonable to suspect a malignancy.

Not sure why I just wrote that. It just popped into my head.

Anonymous said...

Despite its musical gaucheries, Berstein's Mass did nothing so much as illustrate that he had not the slightest conception of what the Mass is. To those who do know, the work is a travesty that deserves its obscurity.

jfl said...

"Haven't we moved beyond the "stretched too thin" stereotyping of Bernstein's achievements?"


Is it a stereotype because it is true? Or maybe it's a case of correlation-no-causation that Bernstein did so many things and achieved a level at most of them that was higher thought of then, than it is now. Which conductor (or composer) has more quickly fallen in estimation than Bernstein, after his death? So many of his recordings seem more endearing than enlightening, now. (Which doesn't keep me from liking them...)

I think it isn't necessarily curmudgeonly to assert that Bernstein was a better educator than he was a conductor and a better conductor than he was a composer.