The Apache Pow Wow

LA Phil Presents Bernstein’s Mass

Margaret Lin, Staff Writer

From Feb. 1 to 4, the Los Angeles Philharmonic will present Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers by Leonard Bernstein, one of the first American-born and raised composers to achieve worldwide acclaim. In this performance of Mass, conductor Gustavo Dudamel will lead an overwhelming cast of singers, choirs, and dancers. In addition, the performance will include a rock band, a marching band, and an orchestra to recreate Bernstein’s innovative theater piece.

Although many people immediately think of Mozart, Beethoven, or other composers of music from the 17th and 18th centuries when they hear the term “composer”, Leonard Bernstein was, as stated by music critic Donal Henahan, “one of the most prodigiously talented and successful musicians in American history.” The son of Ukrainian-Jewish parents, “Lenny” Bernstein was captivated by music and the piano at a very young age after he listened to piano performance. He went on to study music at Harvard University and the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia under the tutelage of prominent musicians such as Fritz Reiner, Walter Piston, and Isabelle Vengerova. Over the years, his various compositions ranged from vocal music to film scores. Many of us might be familiar with the 1961 film West Side Story; yes, he wrote the music for that. Mass, considered to be one of his major compositions during the 1970s, was originally criticized and viewed as blasphemous by the Roman Catholic Church and contemporary music critics.

The piece was composed in 1971, a year marked by the Vietnam War, Indo-Pakistani War, and other instances of violence. The U.S. devalued the dollar, and the passings of artists and cultural figures, such as Louis Armstrong, Rockwell Kent, and Coco Chanel, seemed to spell the end of an era. However, it was also the year 18-year-olds received the right to vote in the U.S., with women also receiving the right of suffrage in Switzerland. Conceptual art and the Jesus movement exploded across the U.S. Out of all this, Mass was born. It included rock and blues bands, adult and children choirs, and singers and dancers who played “street people”. Mass was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the late John F. Kennedy. It premiered on Sept. 8, 1971 as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., and was conducted by Maurice Peress. The piece later premiered in Europe in 1973, performed by the Yale Symphony Orchestra and conducted by John Mauceri in Vienna. The piece was partly intended to be an anti-war statement during this tumultuous time period.

However, the piece also presented the problem of finding God in a seemingly godless world. Mass fused together different religious traditions, as well as different musical styles, blending both classical and rock music. The plot centers around the Celebrant, a Catholic priest who conducts the celebration of the mass. In the beginning, all the performers are in agreement, until the street performers start to express doubt about the necessity of God in their lives. The priest’s faith is continually tested until all ceremony breaks down and the mass is shattered, at which he then wonders where the strength of his original faith had gone. At the end, the choirs rediscover their faith, ending with a hymn asking for God’s blessing. The piece concludes with the words: “The Mass is ended; go in peace.”

Be sure to go watch this performance of Bernstein’s Mass. Additional information and ticket prices can be found at their website: https://www.laphil.com. The LA Phil’s rendition of this transcendental piece is definitely not a performance to be missed. You’ll probably walk out of the Walt Disney Concert Hall feeling a little more at peace than you did when you walked in.

Photo courtesy of WRIGHT STATE UNIVERSITY

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LA Phil Presents Bernstein’s Mass