A Simple Song

A Simple Song

DPO hosts Leonard Bernstein’s moving, mysterious and eminently theatrical MASS

By Patrick Suarez

Leonard Bernstein conducting.

Although from the same generation, the two men could not have been more dissimilar. One was poor, from northern Orange County in metro Los Angeles, the son of Quakers, and became president of the United States. The other was Jewish, from a comfortable family north of Boston and became the face of classical music and Broadway in the second half of the 20th century. Richard Nixon and Leonard Bernstein, polar opposites, would factor into each other’s lives during the summer of 1971. It started with Bernstein’s treasured work, MASS.
On Friday, May 13 and Saturday, May 14, the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Neal Gittleman, will perform MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. MASS is the most elaborate and expansive work in the orchestra’s nearly 80-year history.
To understand MASS, one must understand not only its composer but the time in which Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz wrote it. Bernstein was iconic and he was everywhere from World War II until his death in 1990. When being a “man about town” in New York City meant something in the 1940s and 1950s, Bernstein was the man about town.
In November 1943, he had the incredible luck to ascend to the stage for a nationally broadcast radio concert, filling in for the indisposed Bruno Walter. The concert, heard by an army of classical music aficionados, catapulted Bernstein into the limelight, a position from which an already energetic man drew even more power.
But Bernstein’s immense fame came because he was musically multidimensional. As talented as he was on the podium and as a classical music composer, he was preternaturally gifted as a Broadway composer. In New York City, that’s the gold standard. Already hailed for On the Town and On the Waterfront, a stroke of genius visited Bernstein: take the most popular love story ever written and relocate it to Spanish Harlem as a musical, with Puerto Ricans in the cast. Engage Stephen Sondheim for the lyrics and Jerome Robbins for the choreography. In 1957, West Side Story became an overnight legend and, in 1962, a huge cinematic hit.
Meanwhile, in 1954, Bernstein began a series of televised lectures about classical music, first with Omnibus and then the Young People’s Concerts. There is no way to know how many children grew to love classical music or became musicians because of those television programs, but one of them was the DPO’s own Neal Gittleman.
As if all of that success weren’t enough, Bernstein sold millions of albums of not only the standards (Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky) but also of Ives, Copland, Stravinsky and, of course, Mahler who Bernstein almost single-handedly resurrected into front row prominence. Bernstein’s face, his influence, his music were omnipresent.
And so were his decidedly left politics. When you are the Pied Piper to millions of voters and you are not a member of the right wing, extreme or otherwise, you get the attention of the darker elements of the federal government, especially in a time of significant turmoil when the president is, in fact, a member of that right wing.
And so it was, that Bernstein, one of the most high profile, radical and influential voices of the left and a long-time target on the FBI’s radar screen, became a person of interest again. The president? None other than Richard Nixon, in all his paranoid grandeur. Given his fertile imagination and drive, Bernstein might have written a musical about doubt and injustice, something to reflect life in that era. In 1971, he got his chance.
That year, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of the 35th president of the United States, asked Bernstein to compose a work to celebrate the opening of Washington D.C.’s new concert venue, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Bernstein now had an outlet to express his frustration with the Vietnam War and other social injustices, while celebrating a man he loved and admired.
Although of the Jewish faith, Bernstein chose the Roman Catholic mass as the setting because Kennedy was Roman Catholic. He originally planned on the traditional mass, with its familiar sections in Latin, but opted instead for a less restrictive approach that would allow him more freedom to explore a range of issues and messages.
This, without doubt, was no traditional mass: it employed but expanded upon the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo and so on. Its musical foundation was the symphony orchestra, but to that Bernstein added a rock band and blues band. Bernstein did not use these more contemporary bands as the Moody Blues did in Days of Future Passed (the orchestra played, then the band played, then the orchestra, but rarely, if ever, at the same time). Rather, Bernstein interwove them into the fabric of his orchestra, resulting in a broader and more interesting soundscape.
Instead of using the tried-and-true cast of chorus and solo singers, MASS adopted a Celebrant character, a traditional chorus, a boy choir, street singers and acolytes, as well as various classical, rock and blues soloist singers, including a boy soloist (although DPO’s performance will use a soprano).
The accepted notion that serious subject matter (the mass, God, the human condition) must be represented by “serious” music (i.e., any popular mass composed in the 18th and 19th centuries) was turned on its head; in fact, Bernstein was on to something when he broke through the boundaries of the expected and allowed this music to reflect awe, angst, turmoil and doubt without droning people into a reverential stupor.
MASS begins, for example, as an unsettling cacophony of different voices in different keys in the Kyrie Eleison (Lord have mercy): humanity is in a frantic state and needs a reassuring presence. That presence arrives with the strumming of a guitar chord: the Celebrant trying to calm his restless flock. Indeed, grave subject matter and not music that Brahms or Verdi would recognize, but music appropriate to the setting.
In many cases, who was singing a specific observation, plea or acerbic comment was as important as the content of the text. Consider the rock singer’s lament:
What I need I don’t have/ What I have I don’t own/ What I own I don’t want/ What I want, Lord, I don’t know.
This is a young adult who is confused about his place in life and his future, and is looking to God, as he was probably taught to do, for some answers. But as MASS progresses, Bernstein offers youth, the congregation and the Celebrant diminishing hope. The Celebrant is MASS’s focal point, heart and soul.
Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz penned the work’s text, and nothing in the musical literature so openly questioned God, humanity and the interrelationship of the two. Stephen Schwartz, just 23 at the time, added the view from his generation about what was going on in post-1960s America. Bernstein, though a social activist, was from the World War II generation and needed Schwartz’s generation’s thoughts and feelings. Bernstein picked the right man. Schwartz’ résumé included Godspell and, years later, Wicked. Another contributor was Paul Simon and his quatrain spoke volumes about the angst of that era:
Half of 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.
If MASS’s music was revolutionary, the lyrics throughout and the story they unfolded were challenging, controversial, timely and timeless. The writing team’s use of rhyme and imagery was extraordinary:
Well, I went to the holy man and I confessed/ Look, I can beat my breast/ With the best/ And I’ll say anything that gets me blessed/ Upon request.
Bernstein and Schwartz were in the Church’s face: Help us understand how God is helping us. Are we alone out here? What matters and what doesn’t? Prove that Sunday mornings are more than just ritual. The Church, predictably, reacted with discomfort and anger.
Although they weren’t Catholic themselves, Bernstein and Schwartz had the guts to speak what millions of Roman Catholics had pondered for centuries. To them, someone had to finally say something about the true role of organized religion in the lives of the beleaguered believers.
By the time MASS got to the Credo, the crisis in confidence was under full sail. The Credo didn’t question the existence of God; rather, it questioned whether God cared or was involved. For the church and its defenders, the Credo was nothing short of cringe inducing.
The trope Hurry pushed for Jesus’ return, when life would finally be what Christianity had promised for nearly two millennia:
You said you’d come again/ When?/ When things got really rough/ So you made us all suffer/ Well they got a bit rougher/ Tougher and tougher/ Well, things are tough enough./ When’s your next appearance on the scene?
Bernstein’s message through the Celebrant: God, as a concept and being, is easy to understand. It is we humans who complicate Him and what He stands for, using Him as a basis for much of the evil that we inflict on one another.
The Celebrant finally cracks under the pressure of shouldering his congregation’s psychological load. In a tour de force that lasts nearly 15 minutes, he breaks down in a section called Things Get Broken. Whether they admitted it openly or not, thousands of priests could have identified with the Celebrant’s meltdown at one point in their priesthood.
For 1971 or 2011, MASS is hot stuff to put on a world stage. Out loud. With music.
It is apparent why “theater piece” is part of the title of MASS. This is not a large cast of performers nailed in one spot, intoning liturgical music. It is a splashy spectacle, a stage-busting, busy event that forces the audience to consider theological and social issues in the midst of a Broadway-like environment.
In the summer of 1971, when the FBI told Richard Nixon about the contents of MASS, Nixon’s advisors suggested he not attend, especially given that Bernstein wrote a work that, to conservatives, was sacrilegious and anti-war. The White House released a press statement that said Nixon did not want to take any attention away from Jackie Onassis on her big night. The irony is, of course, less than one year later, Nixon’s burglars broke into the hotel that sat immediately adjacent to the Kennedy Center. Bernstein’s singular work would thrive and be studied for decades and Nixon would leave Washington in disgrace. In the words of the Celebrant:
O you people of power, your hour is now./ You may plan to rule forever, but you never do somehow.

One on One with Neal Gittleman:
His take on MASS, Bernstein and the Celebrant

What was it about MASS that moved you?
I first experienced MASS as a freshman in college. It was one of those transformative experiences for me, sitting in the pit, playing the violin part, but getting an experience of something very special in the whole production and dramatic aspects of it, the storyline and, most of all, the music. I thought it was some of the best music I’d ever come across. It spoke to me a lot because I was someone who didn’t pay much attention to the official boundaries between music. I was on a course of study for classical music, but I listened to a lot of rock and I liked jazz and blues, and here was somebody (Bernstein) trying to do a piece that would have everything in it, all at once, acknowledging that there shouldn’t be any boundaries between music styles. All kinds of things in MASS spoke to me. [Neal Gittleman]
Was Bernstein injecting himself into the Celebrant?
Oh, I think definitely. The Celebrant is clearly a ‘Lenny’ figure. We did the production at Yale in March, 1973, which Bernstein came to see and loved, and someone concocted the idea to do in Vienna in June, which they did. The production that travelled was essentially identical to the production we had done in March, except for the Celebrant. The New Haven Celebrant had gray hair, reminiscent of Lenny himself (55 at the time), so he brought to mind the gray-haired Bernstein. And the one thing Bernstein insisted be changed was that the Celebrant be young. Bernstein wanted to see himself through the Celebrant as a young man. [NG]

How is Bernstein like the Celebrant?
Well, he’s the center of attention [Gittleman laughs]! The most important thing about MASS, for someone new to it, is that it is a theatrical piece. It’s not a concert piece; it’s not something you listen to on a CD; it’s something that has to be staged. When you stage it, one of the things that becomes apparent is that the Celebrant is the leader of everything that is going on, but there are a lot of pressures and tensions he’s subjected to because he’s the focal point of the community. Because he’s the leader, he feels a lot of responsibility. They feel both admiration for him but they also chafe a little at his leadership: everybody likes to have a leader, but everybody doesn’t like to follow when a leader tells you what to do. As the story progresses, the Celebrant feels himself pulled in different directions. He’s pulled by his own vision and faith; he’s pulled by the stubbornness of his followers; he’s pulled by people who want him to go further; he’s pulled by people who want him to not be quite the boss. If you think about Bernstein’s career, that’s what he was like. Bernstein wanted to do everything, but he had people who wanted him to be just a conductor; he had people who wanted him to write more stage musicals. There were constantly people pushing and pulling him, trying to make him be what they wanted him to be. But, he just wanted to be Lenny, which was all things to all people. The drama that the Celebrant goes through is a reflection of what Bernstein went through in his own life. [NG]

What is it about MASS’s music that is so extraordinary?
In 1971, that was pretty radical because people who liked rock didn’t like jazz and most of them didn’t like classical music. Bernstein was trying to make all the different strains of music out there come together in the service of one story. People who were experts in music objected to Bernstein interjecting rock and jazz into classical, and classical into rock and jazz. It had something to bother everybody in 1971! Probably the biggest thing that has changed in 40 years is us and the way we listen. We are much more musically omnivorous now than we were in 1971. People are now much more tolerant of other styles of music, especially in small doses. The modern ear doesn’t see MASS as all that weird a piece as it seemed to people 40 years ago. [NG]

Reach DCP freelance writer Patrick Suarez at PatSuarez@daytoncitypaper.com.

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