On July 28, I had the good fortune to attend a production of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass offered in honor of the composer’s 100 birthday. It was a spectacular evening in every way. The weather was perfect and the performance was remarkable. People were everywhere, filling the grounds and the pavilion.
My husband and I arrived early allowing us to select a great spot in which to place our rented chair, which we found very comfortable. We explored the newly remodeled Ravinia Market where the grab-n-go food is located and selected just the right salads. Seated and comfortable in our chairs, we heard an invitation to the pre-performance discussion. Everyone was invited to the Pavilion and I went, realizing this was the first Pre-Concert Discussion I had attended at Ravinia.
This discussion between Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman, Bernstein biographer Humphrey Burton, Jamie Bernstein, and Ravinia Bernstein Centennial music curator Marin Alsop for a Pre-Concert Discussion about Mass was a remarkable moment. Jamie Bernstein explained that Mass is the most auto=biographical of all Bernstein’s works. Humphrey Burton who is from England expressed delight in being at Ravinia for the first time. The six- minute video collage of Leonard Bernstein was beautiful and moving. Marin Alsop shared experiences about preparations for this one night production. An amazing amount of coordination and effort went into the production with a spectacular result.
Mass has the distinction of being known as Bernstein’s best work and his worst work. I found Masss spiritual, operatic, complex and seemingly a search for the meaning of life. “Having dedicated Kaddish to the memory of John F. Kennedy shortly after his assassination, when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis asked Bernstein to compose a piece for the 1971 inauguration of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., he was eager to honor the occasion with a new, large-scale work because he knew he had always wanted “to compose a service of one sort or another.” Jamie Bernstein mentioned that the Roman Catholic Mass was selected in honor of the country’s first Catholic President. This was not a straightforward, purely musical setting of the Latin liturgy, but a broadly eclectic theatrical event by placing the 400-year-old religious rite into a tense, dramatic dialog with music and lyrics of the 20th century vernacular, using this dialectic to explore the crisis in faith and cultural breakdown of the post-Kennedy era.” Jamie pointed out that the use of so many types and styles of music was far ahead of its time and was upsetting to some audience members. From the vantage point of Jesus Christ Superstar and Hamilton, it is hard to think that Bernstein opened the door.
MASS‘s music reflects the multifaceted nature of Bernstein’s career, with blues, rock, gospel, folk, Broadway and jazz idioms appearing side by side with 12-tone serialism, symphonic marches, solemn hymns, Middle Eastern dances, orchestral meditations, and lush chorales, all united in a single dramatic event with recurring musical motifs. Bernstein uses the uninhibitedly tonal rock ‘n’ roll of the Street Chorus to challenge the dogmatic, atonal music of the Church; ultimately, the musical argument is resolved with a glorious, tonal chorale (“Almighty Father”) sung by the entire company.
The Ravinia production featured Bernstein’s final and only female protégé, Marin Alsop conducting the CSO with acclaimed baritone Paulo Szot in the lead role of Celebrant. Rarely performed because of its scale, this production brought together 300 artists. This is the first time the work was presented by either the CSO or Ravinia. The show is directed by Kevin Newbury and choreographed by Melissa Mahon, with Leslie Stifelman serving as music supervisor.
The voices were sensational and the acting powerful and moving. CSO was outstanding. The costumes conveyed the various roles clearly. The dancing was charming. The standouts for me were the Highland Park High School Band coming down the aisles, the letters that were read. In the original they from Viet Nam soldiers but now they were from participants in the production, making this very current. The end with congregant moving through the aisles holding candles was breathtaking and deeply moving.
I did wonder, however, what the experience was like for the majority of the audience that didn’t see the action. I would strongly recommend that one rush to see this production, but, it was a gift that was offered only once.
Photo credit Patrick Gipson/ Ravinia unless otherwise noted.
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