Bernstein’s MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

Leonard Bernstein accepted that commission and the result was MASS
, a ninety-minute ‘Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers’ which
was premiered on 8th September 1971, and which placed the Latin
Catholic Mass at the core of an interrogation of faith.

Humphrey Burton, Bernstein’s biographer, suggests that Bernstein’s
experience of performing the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth
Symphony at the funeral of Senator Robert Kennedy in 1968, at which a
Catholic Mass was said, inspired his decision to explore the historical and
spiritual significance of a ritual which is at the heart of humanity’s
relationship with the promises of Christianity. However, the Preface to the
composer’s Second Symphony, composed twenty years earlier and titled The Age of Anxiety after W.H. Auden’s poem, states, ‘The essential
line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of our difficult and
problematic search for faith’, and it was a search which continued through Candide, the Kaddish Symphony and so many of Bernstein’s
works, suggesting that the pursuit of theological meaning in his modern
world was in fact Bernstein’s driving preoccupation and inspiration.

1971 was a moment of crisis and change for the US. Peace protests against
the six-year-long Vietnam War were escalating, and images of the shooting
by the National Guard of four protesting students at Kent State University
were vivid in the minds of many. In the domestic field, December 1970 had
seen the devaluation of the US dollar at the end of the most inflationary
year since the Korean War: taxes and unemployment figures were high and
climbing, and the Nixon administration’s new economic policy caused
discontent at home and in Latin America and Cuba. Moreover, President Nixon
announced his plan to visit China, hoping to end the long confrontation
between the US and the People’s Republic.

was thus certainly ‘of its time’. The question I asked myself as I took my
seat in the Royal Festival Hall for the first of two performances, directed
by Southbank Centre Artistic Director Jude Kelly and conducted by Marin
Alsop, who studied with Bernstein, was: what messages – philosophical,
spiritual, political, musical, artistic – does it have for our

In 1971, Catholic bishops condemned the work as blasphemy; in 2000, Pope
John Paul II requested that Bernstein’s MASS be staged at the Vatican, a
wish that was fulfilled in 2004. This performance was described as a ‘new
staging’, updated for Bernstein’s centenary year; in fact, it was a
re-working of Kelly’s 2010 staging, also conducted by Alsop, and to the
projected images of the Kennedys, flower-power peace protestors and Martin
Luther King were addended a roll call of recent presidential incumbents
from the Bushes to Obama to Trump, and images of last month’s March For Our Lives rallies in the US, in which hundreds of
thousands of student called for action against gun violence.

Strangely, this visual argument for ‘relevance’ made me ‘lose faith’: in the sense that it seemed to confirm that both the
promise of theological doctrine and practice, and the human faith embodied
by the believers, campaigners, leaders and followers whose faces flashed
before our eyes, had been shown to be flawed or misguided, ending in

Fortunately, the performance itself was more uplifting, involving more than
400 hundred young performers – representing the National Youth Orchestra of
Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Finchley Children’s
Music Group, Streetwise Opera, the Southbank Centre’s Voicelab, Trinity
Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and other community groups – who
spread across the extended Festival Hall stage, danced on the central
platform, looked down from the rear and side galleries, marched with their
brass instruments blaring down the aisles, carried candles and assembled
across the breadth of the Hall. Dressed in concert black, rainbow-hued
ti-shirts, street-gear, vestments, they represented all worlds, all times.

I don’t know about faith, but if I’d been conducting such multitudes, I’d
have been doing so on a wing and a prayer! Marin Alsop – a diminutive but
authoritative figure on a podium stage-right, nestled among the members of
a rock band, facing the orchestral wind players – in contrast, was a
portrait of calm control. Tele-screens had been positioned in the
orchestral ranks to overcome the obscured sightlines but those playing at
the rear must still have had a difficult time, in the often dimly lit Hall,
and it is a credit to their maturity, confidence and professionalism that
the ensemble was so strong.

Alsop, a long-time advocate for MASS, repeatedly smiled
encouragingly at the young performers. I feared that the quasi-anarchy of
the rock-blues protest song which disrupts ‘Dona nobis pacem’ would
overwhelm audience, performers and conductor alike, but, no: Alsop’s raised
fist punched sharply to the floor, signally a remarkably instantaneous
silence, as the frustrated, despairing Celebrant smashed his sacraments and
hurled his chalice to the floor – a very human response to spiritual
responsibility and frustration.

Bernstein’s generic eclecticism has inspired some vicious criticism.
Writing in the New York Times, Harold C. Schonberg accused
Bernstein of creating with MASS ‘a combination of superficiality
and pretentiousness, and the greatest mÈlange of styles since the ladies’
magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce’,
while critic, musicologist and amanuensis to Stravinsky, Robert Craft,
contemptuously condemned the work as ‘Mass, the Musical’.

The blues (in the Confiteor) sits alongside gospel (in the Gloria,
interwoven with chant). Christian hymns jostle next to Hebraic intonations
(‘In nominee patris’). Folk song (at the premiere, Bernstein is reported to
have said to Aaron Copland, of the closing chorale, ‘That’s you, baby’) and
musical theatre (finger-clicking straight from West Side Story)
share the score with operatic a cappella (‘Almighty Father’ could have been
lifted from Candide). Then, there are the alternations between
pre-recorded music (representing the fossilization of faith, perhaps?) and
live performance. The microphone balance was not always perfect in the
Festival Hall. I confess I felt rather ear-beaten but the diversity, and by
the occasional disjunct between stylistic levity and spiritual magnitude.

This registral mismatch is in evidence, too, in the libretto (by Bernstein
in collaboration with Stephen Schwartz), which is as likely to thrown up a
clichÈ as a clinching one liner such as ‘Living is easy when you’re
half-alive’. The rhymes may be perspicacious at times – in the
Gospel-Sermon ‘God Said’, the soloists sings an all-too-contemporary
reminder, ‘God said to spread His commands/ To folks in faraway lands;/
They may not want us there,/ But man it’s out of our hands.’ – but the
words of Auden kept surfacing in my mind: ‘“You cannot tell people what to
do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is,
particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each
according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusion.’

The only named solo role is that of the Celebrant, and Tony Award-winning
Brazilian baritone Paulo Szot met every one of the role’s many challenges,
encompassing the extensive tessitura effortlessly, projecting with a
powerful urgency – of both hope and anger – and employing a sweet head
voice which was superbly centred and controlled. Szot had the sensitivity
to imbue the ‘Simple Song’ with pure sincerity and the stamina to negotiate
the long soliloquy, ‘Fracture’, with compelling intensity. Every emotional
ounce of the Celebrant’s trial, torment and reconciliation was

The Celebrant essentially represents ‘Christianity’ and is pitted against
the ‘Street People’ who are unnamed, who challenge his assurances: ‘I
believe in God, but does God believe in me’, cries a disillusioned rock
singer. Those taking the principal, unnamed solo roles made convincing
individuals of the protestors and hippies, creating effective narrative.
The three treble soloists, Maia Greaves and Freddie and Leo Jemison, were
similarly impressive, their composure, vocal accuracy and theatrical
presence remarkable for their tender years. The dancers, clad in
drab beige and cramped on the central platform, did not really have the
opportunity to shine, however.

This is an exciting month for the Southbank Centre. This performance of MASS (which was repeated the following evening) initiated a Young People’s Weekend – comprising educational activities and
wrap-around events including an education project with Year 9 students at
Lilian Baylis Technology College – while next week witnesses the launch of Composers’ Collective, a new year-round initiative connecting
composers at all stages of their careers with a variety of eminent
composers. Moreover, Monday 9th April will see the reopening of
the newly-refurbished Queen Elizabeth Hall and Purcell Room. It’s good to
be reminded of the need to have faith in music, in art and in the young
people who are humankind’s cultural and spiritual future.

Similarly, whatever one’s misgivings about MASS’s ambitious
striving for universality and plurality – in theological and musical terms
– it’s good to be reminded too of the historical, perhaps inherent,
relationship of faith and art. In ‘I believe in God’, Bernstein pushes home
this relationship: ‘I believe in one God,/ But then I believe in three./
I’ll believe in twenty gods If they’ll believe in me./ I believe in F
sharp./ I believe in G./ But does it mean a thing to you/ Or should I
change my key?’ Candide and Cunegonde offer a response to such questions in
the final chorus of Candide: ‘The sweetest flow’rs, the fairest
trees/ Are grown in solid ground.’ Or, as Bernstein put it in the liner
notes to the 1977 Deutsche Gramaphon recording of The Age of Anxiety: ‘Faith turns out to be in your own backyard …
where you least look for it, as in this glass of orange juice I am holding
in my hand. There is God in the orange juice, for sunshine is there, earth,
vitamins …’

So, we must grow our own gardens, and our own faith. And, at the Festival
Hall, Kelly, Alsop and the multitude of young performers reminded us that
if we worship at the altar of music and art, the best of all possible
worlds just might be attainable.

Claire Seymour

Leonard Bernstein: MASS

Conductor – Marin Alsop, Director – Judy Kelly, Celebrant – Paulo Szot,
Treble soloists – Maia Greaves, Freddie Jemison, Leo Jemison, Lead Vocal
Coach – Mary King, Designer – Michael Vale, National Youth Orchestra of
Great Britain, Chineke! Junior Orchestra, Singers (from Southbank
Centre’s Voicelab, Avanti House Secondary School, The Choir With No Name,
Finchley Children’s Music Group, Millennium Performing Arts, Streetwise
Opera, Tring Park School for the Performing Arts, Trinity Laban
Conservatoire of Music and Dance, Woven Gold), Visuals (Yeast Culture &
Lilian Bayliss Technology School).

Royal Festival Hall, London; Friday 6th April 2018.

image_description=Bernstein’s MASS: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018
product_title=Bernstein’s MASS: directed by Jude Kelly, conducted by Marin Alsop, at the Royal Festival Hall, 6th April 2018
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: MASS at the Royal Festival Hall

Photo credit: Mark Allan