Composer Leonard Bernstein is known for helping to bridge the gap between popular and classical music. West Side Story comes to mind, as it did early in a panel discussion on Bernstein’s Mass held on Thursday, September 17, at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.
The discussion, before a capacity crowd in the Mary Anderson Room, was hosted by the Center for Interfaith Relations and the Louisville Orchestra, and was moderated by Daniel Gilliam, director of radio for Louisville Public Media. It featured Cantor David Lipp of Adath Jeshurun, Fr. David G. Sánchez of St. Joseph Catholic Church, and Teddy Abrams, music director for the Louisville Orchestra. Asked what their first exposure to Bernstein was, both Cantor Lipp and Fr. Sánchez said West Side Story. Thus began this “conversation on meaning.”
Mass was a work commissioned by Jackie Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center 44 years ago this month. Its original title was Mass, A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.
Abrams pointed out its enormous scale, which includes a full orchestra, diverse singers, a full choir, and a “street” chorus, among other elements, makes it difficult to present. Indeed, the Louisville Orchestra presentation, which opens the Classic Concert Series on September 26, omits the dancers simply because there is no room on the stage. Abrams likened the production to working with a giant set of Legos with no instruction sheet.
Attempting to bridge theater and liturgy is fraught with danger and the panelists discussed the extent to which people might be offended. Abrams said it depended on how the piece was presented. “It’s a theatrical mass, not a liturgical one,” he said. Fr. Sánchez agreed, calling it drama rather than a sacrilege.
Cantor Lipp pointed out the irony that this piece, set as it is as a Catholic mass, was the product principally of three Jews: Bernstein; Stephen Schwartz, the lyricist; and Paul Simon. The irony was probably not lost on Bernstein and may have been among the issues the complex piece presents.
Lipp talked about struggling with concepts of God. Abrams, calling himself a “Lennyistic” Jew, saw peace as common to all religions. Sánchez felt that religion brought hope to people.
The human struggle Mass depicts leads to a dramatic breakdown, a shock to some. The grand scale of the piece, Abrams explained, allows one to see it in various ways even as it can lead one to question his own values. Cantor Lipp saw the various elements of the piece as a “scaffold” to theological challenges, a view enthusiastically embraced by Abrams. Mass opens with “Simple Song.”
Sing God a simple song, lau da lau de.
make it up as you go along, lau da lau de.
This very simplicity, Cantor Lipp pointed out, portends the complexity of building a religious structure, with its laws, customs, heroes, adherents, etc.
Clearly, Mass was shocking in 1971, but can audiences be shocked in the same way in 2015? Abrams said yes. “If we do it right, it’s a timeless experience.” Cantor Lipp was less sure about its present-day shock value. He found it more moving than shocking.
Initially, some classical music critics dismissed Mass as a vulgar exercise in antiestablishment pandering. Its ultimate survival and its continued popularity a full generation later, Abrams pointed out, highlights the singularity of Leonard Bernstein as a composer. No composer, he said, now has the kind of connection with the public that Bernstein had.
Asked by the moderator what he would say to a parishioner who came to him offended by Mass, Fr. Sánchez said he would tell them what he tells his flock at the end of any liturgical mass: “The mass has ended. Go in peace.”
Whether one sees it as a product of anti-Viet Nam war sentiment or a remarkable attempt to use music to test our religious values, Abrams felt Mass was especially suited to Louisville audiences and urged us to see it more than once.
Teddy Abrams will conduct Leonard Bernstein’s Mass on Saturday, September 26, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, September 27, at 3 p.m. Both performances will be at the Kentucky Center for the Arts.
The Louisville Orchestra will also present a Klezmer to Kaddish concert featuring music from Maurice Ravel’s “Kaddish” to Irving Berlin’s “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” There are three performances, including one on Sunday, October 18, at 3 p.m. at The Temple. For tickets, call 502-584-7777.