Surround Yourself in Song

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Leonard Bernstein's MASS: Then and Now


by Diana M. Lara


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The standing ovation at Cincinnati Music Hall lasted eight minutes, noted The New York Times. It was May 22, 1972, and the Cincinnati May Festival had just presented Leonard Bernstein’s controversial and epic new theatre piece, MASS, for the second time in its history. All eyes were on Cincinnati.

MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers found its way to the Queen City from Washington, D.C. Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis asked Leonard Bernstein to compose a piece for the 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Her late husband, John F. Kennedy, the country’s first and only Roman Catholic President, had been assassinated in 1963. The resulting MASS followed the framework of the 400-year-old Catholic worship service to explore a perceived crisis in faith and cultural breakdown of the post-Kennedy era.

As part of the international celebration of what would have been Bernstein’s 100th birthday, and for the first time since 1972, the May Festival is presenting Bernstein’s MASS in its entirety on Saturday, May 19 at Music Hall. Rarely executed in its entirety due to the enormity of the undertaking, which calls for a full orchestra, three choirs, dancers, a marching band, and rock and blues bands, MASS runs nearly two hours without an intermission. The 2018 May Festival offers a rare opportunity to experience what many regard as a masterful exploration of faith.

A celebrated conductor and composer throughout his career, Bernstein’s use of the Roman Catholic Mass as a model for this musical and theatrical exploration of faith did not sit well with some church leaders at the time. Cincinnati Archbishop Paul Leibold said he considered the production “offensive to Catholics,” even though he had never experienced the new Bernstein piece. The clergy did not universally hold that view. A local priest named Joseph W. Goetz, who passed away recently, attended the Bernstein MASS performance, publicly defying the archbishop, and was among those applauding during that eight-minute ovation.

“I recall people being outside Music Hall picketing, trying to make us feel bad that we were engaging in this horrible thing,” said Father Terry Baum, who was a junior at Xavier University at the time of the performance and went on to become an ordained Jesuit priest. “Cincinnati had a reputation for being a very conservative and Catholic town, and the archbishop took a very hard approach.”

Despite the picketing in front of Music Hall and hard line taken by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati in 1972, Bernstein’s MASS eventually found its way to the Vatican for a performance at the request of Pope John Paul II in 2000.

MASS was created and first performed during a tumultuous time in American history. Choral conductor and educator Earl Rivers was in the U.S. Army serving as a member of a military chorus from 1967 to 1970. He recalls riots, protests and even being pelted with eggs while in uniform during those years. The call for civil rights, national protests against the Vietnam War, and high-profile assassinations fueled a movement demanding change. Remembering being near the site of riots following the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rivers recalls this chaotic time of civil unrest in America as “a scary time.”

Baum also recalled that time, saying, “It was the Vietnam era, and the country as a whole was quite unsettled. The fact that it was a mass…but not really a mass, it’s a theatre piece that used the structure of the Catholic Mass to protest. He [Bernstein] captured the opinions of the nation’s young people becoming more politically aware of social justice through the voices of the Street Chorus in MASS.”

Bernstein was known as a humanitarian and activist who opposed the war. In an essay called “My Father’s Idealism,” his daughter, Jamie Bernstein, wrote, “My father, Leonard Bernstein, grew up in a world of stark political contrasts. From the Depression to Roosevelt and the New Deal, from Nazism to World War II and the dropping of the atom bomb on Hiroshima, young Bernstein witnessed a world full of evil that was occasionally tempered by powerful forces of good. In the mid-1960s, just as life and public justice in America seemed to be making some progress, Bernstein and his contemporaries found themselves swept up in the upheavals of three devastating assassinations: President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and then five years later, Rev. Martin Luther King and President Kennedy’s brother, Robert F. Kennedy. And then there was yet another long and wounding war, in Vietnam.”

In 1971, Rivers was a second-year doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) conducting the University Singers, a chorus made up of voice and theater majors. “I learned CCM was going to be a part of a new work by Leonard Bernstein. We were so excited to be a part of it,” recalls Rivers. “It carried us the whole year.” Rivers’ university ensemble served as the integral Street Chorus for MASS.

Tensions grew in Cincinnati as the 1972 May Festival grew nearer.

“Some priests asked their congregations not to attend MASS,” said Rivers “I can see how in those days it could have been offensive. It was a really big deal that it was being performed for the second time in its entirety right here after the Kennedy Center. I didn’t know any other work at that time that had such a variety of musical styles.” Rivers and his singers rehearsed for two weeks straight. He recalls only one day off, May 15th, before the performance.

The text for MASS has been described as religious and irreverent, hopeful and sincere, political, dismissive, sarcastic and, by some, offensive. According to Rivers, “These songs encapsulate the 1970s period so well. There was nothing to compare it to on this scale, which is why this piece will have legs and relevance for a long time.”

As an undergraduate student at Xavier, Baum invited a nun he worked for from Ursuline to accompany him to the performance. “It was magnificent to attend. There were lots of priests wearing their collars and nuns wearing their habits,” he recalls. “We were aware the celebrant loses control and were all waiting for it. Not having YouTube back then, we were all curious to see how he [the Celebrant] would react.”

Baum described the reactions and how some conservative church people thought it was sacrilege, especially throwing down the consecrated bread and wine. “This was jarring to some members of the Catholic community. These are so precious to Catholics, and no Catholic could ever imagine that taking place during the mass. Bernstein used it as a theatrical and dramatic effect. It was captivating.”

Maurice Peress, who conducted both the world premiere and the 1972 May Festival performance of Bernstein’s MASS, was so impressed by Rivers’ dedication in preparing the Street Chorus that he offered the young conductor a position working on preparing a scaled-down version of the production. They toured the country with 60 performances, and Rivers was thrilled to meet Bernstein in Los Angeles and gain insights into the composer’s meticulous attention to detail.

“The first thing he [Bernstein] said was he really disliked the props, which included the chalice and the cross,” said Rivers. “He continued expressing how the props looked cheap. They weren’t beautiful enough. He wanted the audience to think they were beautiful enough to take home. That’s when I realized he was all-encompassing and had a total vision of what this piece should look like.”

According to Rivers, a few days later the props magically reappeared, redone, and they were gorgeous.

As Rivers and Baum reminisced about their experiences, Rivers stated, “It was enormous pride we felt. We had prepared and handled the technical challenges of audio at the time among the different choruses with enough time to get it right.” Both said they are looking forward to sitting in the audience to experience MASS for the second time—this time with a better understanding of MASS and with expectations of it being a far richer experience now than in 1972.

“I remember I was fascinated by the Celebrant, and the kind of internal turmoil that developed in him,” Baum reminisced. “In the end, what the Celebrant was trying to achieve with ‘A Simple Song’ was actually accomplished by the street singers in ‘Sing God a Secret Song.’ It was a sense of unity expressed by the people coming together. Like the ending of any Catholic Mass, they say, ‘Mass is ended; go in peace,’ and the congregants leave and go forward together into the world with a song of blessing. It all came together so beautifully,” reminisces Baum. “The ending brought tears to my eyes.”

Forty-six years after the picketing and that eight-minute standing ovation at Music Hall, many believe that MASS’ return to Cincinnati is just as timely today as it was in 1972. “It is amazing how well this piece has weathered the years. The topics are still relevant,” said Baum, who added, “If Bernstein were alive today, might he have had more commentary on racial issues, refugees, migrants and the environment? Clearly, there is conflict many still have with the government, and they are hearing the same emotions being elicited today as in 1972.”