Prom 32 – Leonard Bernstein: Mass

This weekend has been a celebration of youth at the BBC Proms. Saturday saw the Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Ireland (with the Ulster Orchestra) playing Chabrier, Mozart and Stravinsky, and the National Youth Orchestra taking on Turangalîla, Sunday’s Proms featured a new work written by Bob Chilcott for the National Youth Choir and an eclectic programme of MacMillan, Wagner, Bruch, Strauss and Musgrave from the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland (and the BBCSO); and last night, one of the crowning glories of the Proms so far, Leonard Bernstein’s wacky Mass, performed by the massed forces of the BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales, the National Youth Orchestra of Wales, the National Youth Choir of Wales, Cardiff youth choir Aelwyd y Waun Ddyfal, a group of crack musicians from the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and the choirs of four Welsh schools, under the baton of Kristjan Järvi. Apologies to those I may have omitted. Altogether around 400 musicians, I would estimate.

Bernstein’s Mass is a curious beast. Its structure is clearly rooted in the Roman Catholic Mass, but it is not a liturgical work, rather a piece of music theatre. It is telling that Bernstein’s chief collaborator was Stephen Schwartz; the piece is contemporaneous (1971) with Schwartz’s musical Godspell, with which it has much in common, at least in terms of style. Bernstein’s programme note makes as much sense as any other description, I suppose:

The ritual is conducted by a young man of mysterious simplicity (called the Celebrant) who throughout the drama is invested by his acolytes with increasingly ornate robes and symbols which connote both an increase in the superficial formalism of his obligation and of the burden that he bears. There is a parallel increase in the resistance of his Congregants — in the sharpness and bitterness of their reactions — and in the deterioration of his own faith. At the climax of Communion, all ceremony breaks down and the Mass is shattered. It then remains for each individual on the stage to find a new seed of faith within himself through painful Meditation, enabling each individual to pass on the embrace of peace (Pax) to his neighbor. The chain of embrace grows and threads through the entire stage, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside.

It should be clear that anyone trying to make sense of Bernstein’s Mass as a piece of theatre has their work cut out. It’s a shambling mess. It’s dated, yes, but surely it was laughable even forty years ago. When the Celebrant in his mad scene sings ‘Look … isn’t that odd … red wine isn’t red at all … it’s sort of brown … brown and blue,’ you are in the realm of Lorenzo St. DuBois whispering ‘Hey man, what did you do to my flower?’

An unstaged performance, shorn of the flowery shirts, was to be welcomed then. The strength of the Mass is musical rather than dramaturgical. I’ve always thought of Bernstein the composer, perhaps wrongly, as a man torn between his natural instinct to write popular music and his desire to be taken seriously as a classical composer. In practice, his concert music, though it has satisfying moments, is often earnest and po-faced, and his most successful Serious Works tend to be those with catchy tunes (see Chichester Psalms). I suppose the Mass is a serious work, in spite of all its levity, but it still makes you want to get up and dance. A bit of the Gloria will probably demonstrate that more eloquently than my words:

I find the juxtaposition of the Latin text of the Gloria with the prosaic — occasionally profane — English (‘They call it Glorious Living / And baby where does that leave you / You and your kind / You and your youth and your mind? / Nowhere!’), all sung to the same music, gloriously exhilarating. The group of singers not dressed in black are designated Street People, and sing solo and group songs in popular styles between the sections of the Latin Mass. Last night’s Street People were students of the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama, and they were often superb. The Gospel-Sermon ‘God Said’, led by the infectiously exuberant Ronald Samm, was a particular highlight.

The Celebrant was Morten Frank Larsen, a Danish baritone I had not encountered before. It took a while for me to come round to his delivery. His English was not always idiomatic, and Järvi’s fast tempi didn’t always favour him; but I come to realise that the role of the Celebrant is only half singing, and that it is just as important to be a good actor. By the end I did not doubt Larsen’s authority. I would love to see him in a staged production. If there was one singer who impressed in every respect, it was the boy treble Julius Foo, whom I have been privileged to hear on many occasions with the Choir of St John’s College, Cambridge. His singing was unfailingly beautiful, particularly in the work’s final section. He got one of the loudest cheers of the night.

It has to be said that the school choirs were excellent, meticulously prepared, dancing when appropriate and sitting still when not. Even their kazoo-playing action had been carefully choreographed. It is only listening back to it that I notice the Welsh accents, which are lovely.

Pleasingly (and appropriately, given his own Welshness), the final blessing — ‘The Mass is ended; go in peace.’ — was delivered, recorded, by Rowan Williams.

It has taken too long for this impossibly flawed and unspeakably brilliant work to be performed at the Proms. Given its recent resurgence, I am sure it won’t be long before it returns. The performers can be very proud of having done it justice. I suspect that in future years I will think of this concert as I do of the now legendary 2007 Prom by Gustavo Dudamel’s Venezuelans — with a pride that I was there.

You can Listen Again to the Prom on iPlayer, and it will be broadcast on TV on Thursday 6th September (BBC Four, 7.30pm) — don’t miss it!

Postscript: Why was the bust of Henry Wood not desecrated during the climactic scene? Someone missed a trick there.


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One Response to “Prom 32 – Leonard Bernstein: Mass”

  1. Bernstein Mass | Useless Chamber Says:

    […] them (although the 4 hour long Cage centenary evening was spectacular as well). My brother wrote a good blog about the MASS Prom, which is worth reading if you’re […]

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