Preparing Bernstein's Mass by Emily Dale

In my nine years of singing in the Virginia Symphony Chorus, our recent preparation of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was one of our most challenging undertakings. It was new music for most of us and one of Bernstein’s least known works, and one of his most controversial. Our music director, Robert Shoup, had been enthusiastic since its was programmed over a year ago, and we caught his enthusiasm. In the past we had grown to love Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, so we were sure this piece would be just as singable. Not really! It’s much harder, and more dissonant.

Our weekly 2 1/2 hour rehearsals began in mid-February, and we had to commit to attend all rehearsals, including a Saturday and a full week of stage rehearsals. Seventy of the usual 90 singers signed out the 300 page score. Since the chorus would be visible and part of the action, we had to know it cold.

The rehearsals were arduous; the harmonies and rhythms are complex and often atonal. The key could go from major to minor in the same measure and the meter changed frequently, making rehearsals together that much more critical. Each voice part had 3-part divisi, resulting in as many as 12 different simultaneous chorus parts in some places. There was only one pretty melody, and the chorus didn’t get to sing that until the end! There was no DVD, and few good recordings available to help us learn. Gradually we got the difficult spots into our brains and muscle memory, and we were even asked to memorize two passages, so that on stage we could give full attention to JoAnn Falletta's baton. We had to go outside our comfort zone with foot stomping, finger snapping, and rhythmic clapping and some spoken responses. The sopranos and tenors had a jazz riff, but we altos weren’t that fortunate. And, horror of horrors for a symphonic chorus, we had to interact on stage with the performers.

The week before the performance Pam Berlin, the stage director and Jeff Davolt, the production stage manager, attended our rehearsal to hear how we sounded and to make sure we were giving the music the correct approach. On Monday, with the show opening on Friday, we had the first Chrysler Hall stage rehearsal, a 6 hour evening, and the first occasion for us to perform together. The rock band was in place with no symphony players yet. Chuck Woodward, our rehearsal accompanist extraordinaire, played the piano part representing the full symphony, including percussion parts. The Street Chorus singing actors had been rehearsing in a smaller hall with Chuck, so this was the first time they could use the full stage space. There were many stops and starts as lights were adjusted and staging was tweaked. The chorus was seated on four risers on the back half of the stage, and in our down time we could relax and watch all the components being put together. No talking at all – mikes were all over the place: Pam Berlin, JoAnn Falletta, the Street Chorus and choreographer Todd Rosenlieb all had one.

We knew that Pam, Rob Cross and Bob had gone to New York to hear auditions for the Celebrant and street singers and were delighted that several local folks made the cut. Boy Soloist was sung by local treble Jon Michael Paul. I have never seen a child perform with such vocal accuracy, confidence and stage presence; he was incredible. Plus, he seemed to be having fun the whole week! The Celebrant, John McVeigh, is an amazingly talented actor and singer. He rehearsed the breakdown scene over and over, but never seemed to be marking or getting tired. Bob told us that John would bring out the appropriate acting response from us as the week went on, and he was right – when the Celebrant smashed the chalice and threw down his vestments we were shocked and sad, yet empathized with him.

On Tuesday night we were fitted for our choir robes. For us women robes are much more comfortable than our usual rib-confining black dresses! We rehearsed with the orchestra in a mixed-up order, and they found the score just as challenging as we did. The challenge of fitting the orchestra on stage had players crammed together, with string basses halfway off-stage and harpist Barbara Chapman on the risers near the sopranos. We were learning the different personalities and stories of the Street Chorus people, and referred to our score to read each story, some risqué, some funny, some heartbreaking. We had been prepared so thoroughly that we were able to adapt quickly to JoAnn’s tempos and to the sounds of the orchestra and we could relax a little and enjoy the whole scope of the drama.

On Wednesday Bob gave us notes from the previous night. The rehearsal was even tighter than Tuesday’s, and we were finally able to run the entire show in sequence, only stopping a few times to work on rough spots. Now the whole story made sense; taken in order and in context, it was very moving and incredibly powerful. The traditional Catholic mass is set within a storyline of present day people relating to the word of God and expressing their doubts and everyday struggles with faith and society. The texts are in English and Latin and the musical styles are all over the map! There were lots of tears at the end – cast, chorus, crew. The ending was all about redemption, healing, peace, harmony, brotherhood. On Thursday night we did a straight run-through, and rehearsed the curtain calls, which needed to be choreographed with more than 200 people to be acknowledged!

On Friday's opening night, the chorus was crowded in the wings for the first 15 minutes of the show. If you picked your spot you could watch JoAnn conduct or the Celebrant sing his first refrain or the children's chorus march around. It was also fun to watch the four acolytes, who on stage were stiff and pious, but backstage were very funny, cutting up and dancing like typical teenagers. Once the children’s chorus made their first exit, we filed on quickly from the dark backstage to the bright set, ready to sing within seconds of the last singer’s getting in place.

The Friday and Saturday performances went very smoothly, with no glitches. Each night the hour and forty minutes (no intermission) flew by. The full houses gave us thunderous standing ovations both nights. We were exhilarated, and sorry we only got to perform it twice. The audiences both nights were amazingly quiet during the passionate parts, seeming to hang on the Celebrant’s every note. They seemed to understand the journey and the message. How gratifying that the Virginia Arts Festival would bring this work to Hampton Roads through the talents of Rob Cross, JoAnn Falletta, Bob Shoup, Chuck Woodward, Todd Rosenlieb, Carol Downing (Virginia Children's Chorus) and our amazing symphony and chorus. These artists live among us and work here, week in and week out. Every time I’m on stage with our Virginia Symphony I’m grateful to be making music with them and grateful for the audiences that support our efforts.

A Powerful Performance of Bernstein's Mass
is Centerpiece of Virginia Arts Festival

In September 1971 Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990 ) brought to the stage a composition titled Mass commissioned by the Kennedy Center at the suggestion Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. As a very busy musician he did not have the time nor the energy to create a new work worthy of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. According to his biographer Humphrey Burton in June, three months before the opening, his sister, Shirley Bernstein, found him “terribly depressed and searching desperately for a collaborator to work on the lyrics for the songs.” She took him to see Godspell and introduced him to the show's lyricist Steven Schwartz. Later Bernstein showed Schwartz the sketches for Mass and within two weeks the show was virtually completed. Alvin Ailey was on-board as choreographer with Hershey Kay as orchestrator. Roger Stevens had been nursing the Kennedy Center into existence for fifteen years and had congressional funds to pay for the “Show of the Century” to set the world talking and stretch the new Kennedy Center Opera House to its technical and artistic limits.

The performance we saw on April 23, 2010 at Chrysler Hall showcased many of Tidewater's finest performers in what Bernstein called “A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.” Over 200 people were on stage: sixty members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra, 75 singers of the Virginia Symphony Chorus led by Robert Shoup, 34 members of Virginia Children's Chorus directed by Carol Thomas Downing, 9 dancers of Todd Rosenlieb Dance with choreography by Mr. Rosenlieb, a Street Chorus of 14 singers, tenor John McVeigh as Celebrant and Jo Ann Falletta, music director and conductor, who held it all together.

The superb Street Chorus included four local singers: Virginia Chorale director, tenor Scott Williamson, who was also cover for the Celebrant role; soprano Shelly Milam and Portsmouth native, baritone David Krohn. Alll three have been seen in local art song recitals and actor Justin Senense recently returned to the area. Treble Jon Michael Paul, auditioned and trained by Carol Thomas Downing and a member of the Virginia Children's Chorus for 5 years, recreated the pivotal role of Boy Soloist with great skill and a polished vocal sparkle.

The opening was a chaotic sound-scape of recorded music of Kyrie Eleison written by Bernstein to mix live action with pre-recorded sound. The Hymn and Psalm was sung by John McVeigh who strolled down the left aisle in blue jeans with a guitar and onto the stage and sang A Simple Song, the most emotionally evocative part of the whole production. As the four Acolytes helped him put on a simple gray cassock the action began to unfold. The service of the mass is overlaid by the complexity of social issues current in the late 60's with Bernstein's emotional reactions expressed through the Celebrant. The final aria, a full-blown mad scene, was meant to be emotionally gripping.

It was mostly entertaining with chorus moving in and out, dancers woven into the action, socially loaded vignettes played on the front of the stage, and a rock band on the right with percussion and guitars expanding the sound of the orchestra. Three orchestral “Meditations” interrupted the flow of the action that Stage Director Pamela Berlin had carefully constructed. At the original dress rehearsals in September, 1971, everyone except the composer thought the 100-minute-plus show without intermission was too long and encouraged Bernstein to cut two of the three “Meditations.” He refused and it's still too long at almost 2 hours. This seamless flow of stage action is accompanied by a potpourri of musical styles. There is a Mahler-sounding interlude, a Latin section reminiscent of Misa Criolla by Ramirez, cabaret songs, Messiaen-like crisp children's voices and a Coplandesque hoedown all woven in with passages reminiscent of Bernstein's Broadway musicals.

New Yorker critic Alex Ross says “The essential plot is that the Celebrant tries to bring his church up to date, takes on the trappings of a cult leader, and eventually loses control of the congregation.” At this point his robe is gold with a to-the-floor white scarf representing the power of the church. After all this we needed a laser-sharp conclusion; instead Bernstein gave us a long, sprawling mess of activity and words including the Celebrant crushing the Chalice and letting the consecrated wine spill onto the floor. Visually, all of this was unclear. He deconstructs himself saying “come love, come lust, Lord, don't You care?” Caught up in the action, my thought was to slap him and tell him to snap out of it, “this scene has gone on far too long.” He was supposed to be getting in touch with his own doubt about God and the Church. He kept repeating over and over again in a pitiful sort of way “Things get broken,” taking no responsibility for his own doubt. Things come to a conclusion when the Boy Soloist returns to the stage praising God with the solo Lauda, Laude, joined by the Street Chous and the full Chorus reprises "Almighty Father, incline thine ear.  Bless us and all those who have gathered here....."  It ends with an Amen, then the Celebrant says: "the mass is ended, go in peace." Alex Ross suggests that this sequence may be Bernstein's greatest theatrical invention.

On reflection, this conclusion is no conclusion at all. Intellectual honesty makes it impossible to return to a simple faith and just trust the Church. Mass was written long before the Catholic church's sexual abuse scandal became public. In 2010 we view this musical work through the lens of the scandal and the hierarchy's coverup and transfer of abusers to new parishes. This is a cynical exploitation of simple faith. Several audience members I spoke with could not see the interaction of priest and boys without seeing the homoerotic potential of this set-up and thought of the abuse.

There is an irony here. In his personal life Bernstein at age 53 was having a crisis of his own. Alex Ross tells us that “With the dimensions of the show prescribed but not all the music written” he skipped town and went to Los Angeles where a rehearsal of Candide was in progress. At a party to honor him he was introduced to Tom Cothran and “entered into a loving relationship” with this 24 year old gay man. Over the years during his 20 year marriage he had had homosexual encounters but this was his first loving relationship. Biographer Humphrey Burton says “Cothran became part of the inner circle, swiftly slipping into the role of jester to Bernstein's king.” Bernstein buried his potentially destructive emotional conflict in preparation and rehearsals for the production of Mass.

This production needed Virginia Opera's supertitle equipment. Even with the performers miked it was often impossible to understand the words. Apparently the audience seated very close to the stage where they didn't need amplification could hear the words clearly. Only now that we have read Emily Dale's notes do the details become clearer. Even with all of this I appreciate greatly this superbly performed but flawed work of art. Bernstein tried to achieve a synthesis between Broadway and the concert hall. This was the closest he ever came to achieving that synthesis. The local musical community came together to make the experience possible. We are richer for the experience and the conversation it has generated will continue to provoke discussion.

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