Leonard Bernstein’s Jewish ‘Mass’ returns to its Washington source

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When Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” opened the Kennedy Center in 1971, it was the social event of the season. And tensions were high. America was polarized by the anti-war movement; by the Pentagon Papers, which had been released earlier that summer; by riots sparked by racial injustice; and by divisive political discourse.

At that star-studded premiere, the piece, which was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, was criticized for its treatment of Catholic liturgy and its overtly political intentions — including the phrase “Give us peace.”

President Richard Nixon refused to attend (He had the FBI surveil the Jewish composer for years due to his outspokenness, left-leaning politics and meetings with groups like the Black Panther Party).

New York cultural mavens rebuffed “Mass” for its mélange of groovy, everything-counts musical and theatrical choices that covered Latin liturgy, Broadway-style show tunes — not surprising from the composer of “West Side Story” — jazz, rock opera, marching band, east Indian raga and American folk ballads.

Yet “Mass” remains at the pinnacle of Bernstein’s artistic achievements. And while a Catholic mass is its centerpiece (the mass is the central act of worship in the Roman Catholic Church), the work could be his most Jewish, even when considered against “Kaddish,” “Chichester Psalms” with its Hebrew text, and his “Dybbuk” ballet suite for choreographer Jerome Robbins.

Now, 51 years after that world premiere, Bernstein’s “Mass,” subtitled “a Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” returns to the nation’s performing arts center Sept. 15, 17 and 18 to celebrate five decades of the center and the composition.

Jamie Bernstein. Photo by Carol Friedman

Creating ‘Mass’

How did Bernstein, the son of Ukrainian Jewish immigrants who grew up in a traditionally religious home, come to create a Catholic mass based on the pre-Vatican II Tridentine Mass?

The composer’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, explained, “My father’s way of being Jewish was not altogether traditional …. He found his own particular way of expressing his relationship to Judaism. He was a deeply spiritual person, but you can really track his spirituality best through his music. That’s where he expressed it.”

In 1971, Bernstein himself explained why he created “Mass” to inaugurate the newly built John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. “I’ve wanted for some years to write a religious service of some kind,” he told John Gruen, writing in Vogue, just before the world premiere. “[T]he association of the name Kennedy seemed to point a ray of light toward the Catholic service … the Mass is probably the most dramatic and theatrical religious service there is,” the composer noted.

“Mass” wrestles with belief, doubt, personal responsibility, societal breakdown and communal healing.

Said Jamie Bernstein, “My father was drawn to the mass for a bunch of reasons, but the main one is that all the great composers wrote masses. So, he wanted to write one, too. And it was not nothing that his wife, my mother, Felicia Montealegre, was herself South American and raised Catholic. She had a very direct connection to the mass” that Bernstein acknowledged.

For this anniversary production, baritone Will Liverman leads the cast as Celebrant, accompanied by the Heritage Signature Chorale, the Children’s Chorus of Washington and the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of James Gaffigan, music director designate of the Komische Oper Berlin. Former Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer Hope Boykin is choreographer, a nod to Ailey himself, who created the original choreography. Opera and stage director Alison Moritz directs.

Repairing the World

Jamie Bernstein added that both her father and her mother — who was born in Costa Rica and converted to Judaism — remained socially and politically engaged throughout their lives.

“Both parents were very involved in what was going on in the world and participated in movements that promoted social justice. My mother did a lot of work for the ACLU and the Committee for Public Justice. My father did it through his music making.”

Jamie Bernstein, 70, sees “Mass” as a deep expression of her father’s desire to use music to effect societal change.

“’Mass’ was very much about the turmoil that was going on in the United States right then, especially with the Vietnam War. And, like now, we were so polarized politically.”

As Bernstein isolated himself at the MacDowell artists’ colony to compose “Mass,” his work became both a salve and a spark to ignite change.

“If I weren’t convinced that there were a way to solve all this [the world’s problems], I would simply jump out of the window,” he told reporter Gruen. “But I am convinced that somehow, miraculously, through the rediscovery of man’s rational power … we’ll be able to make it. That’s why I’m really writing ‘Mass.’ It’s the only way I can contribute to what I hope is rationality in these times.”

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The result was truly massive. The premiere featured 200 performers in a fully theatricalized staging with orchestra, a formal choir, a boys’ choir, musicians and dancers, and a leader called the Celebrant.

Bernstein dove into Catholic liturgy, some of it quoted verbatim, like “Dona nobis pacem” or “give us peace,” and included new lyrics by young writer Stephen Schwartz, whose “Godspell” was performed the same year as “Mass.”

”Mass” was a stunning achievement that has been both lauded as Bernstein’s best work and, particularly at the time, dismissed as “vulgar trash.”

Critical ‘Mass’

The quintessentially Jewish nature of “Mass” lies in its questioning —even railing against — God.

“My father engaged in this lifelong argument with his creator,” Jamie Bernstein said. She imagines him holding up his fist and shaking it while looking at the heavens. The work has been called offensive by Catholic theologians for its argumentative nature, its blatant questioning of God, and its earthiness. His daughter, though, views it as authentic Jewish expression.

“The most essentially Jewish practice is to ask questions of your creator,” she said. “That’s just such a primal element of Judaism. I think of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and the way Tevye is constantly doing the exact same thing: questioning God.”

But these questions are not guileless; they have a purpose in “Mass.” His daughter said she connects the work to Judaism’s prophetic vision of tikkun olam — healing the world.

The premiere took place coincidentally on Jamie Bernstein’s 19th birthday. And 10 years later, she performed in the street chorus in another “Mass” at the Kennedy Center. At that first performance in 1971, she said, right up until the curtain rose, her father was making adjustments to the score, while carpenters were hammering finishing touches around the building.

Clocking in at two hours, advisers begged him to include an intermission. He was adamant that there would be no break. After all, in church, a mass doesn’t have an intermission. That’s part of the experience.

At the end, “The audience went crazy,” Jamie Bernstein recalled. “So many of them were in tears because it’s very emotional. If you allow yourself to give yourself over to the piece, it’s going to hit you in a very deep place, because ‘Mass’ dares to ask some of our hardest and most private questions about our existence.”

Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass,” Sept. 15, 17, 18, Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Washington. For more information, visit https://www,kennedy-center.org/nso/home/nso-mass/

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