Sunday, January 25, 2009

Leonard Bernstein's "Mass"

On Friday night I saw Leonard Bernstein's Mass, a Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers at Orchestra Hall here in Minneapolis. It was amazing. It's difficult to describe the piece, it combines many different elements, it's a little of everything, a little bit Broadway musical, a little bit of a symphony. The piece calls for a full orchestra, a "street chorus," a chorale, a boy's choir, and dancers. All told, more than 200 different artists were on stage all at once! Mass was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein took his inspiration for the piece from the traditional Latin Catholic mass, a link to JFK's Catholicism. (Bernstein was once asked, "What's a Jewish boy like you doing writing a mass?")

I can't say that I totally understood the piece, but it deals with faith being questioned. I couldn't understand most of the lyrics to the songs, but the music was beautiful. The music Bernstein wrote for Mass was amazingly diverse, at times it sounds like West Side Story, at times it sounds atonal, at times it sounds like folk-rock. But it's always very striking, there are themes and motifs that only last for a moment or two, but are amazingly beautiful and moving. All in all, it was a fantastic opportunity to see a great, experimental work that is rarely performed live.

My Mom went with me, she has the original album, which she just loves, and she was very excited to see Mass in person. After the show, there was a Q&A with Leonard's daughter Jamie and Minnesota Orchestra conductor Osmo Vanska. One man in the audience had been at the premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1971, and he flew in from New York just to see this performance! Also, a woman in the audience was one of the flute players at the premiere. She talked a little bit about how much fun it was to work with Leonard Bernstein, and what a joy he brought to all those around him. Hearing these personal stories was a nice end to an unforgettable evening.

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