When Fred Bronstein, the Dallas Symphony's president, told me in the summer of 2002 that he wanted the symphony to mount a production of Leonard Bernstein's Mass at the Meyerson on the 40th anniversary of John Kennedy's assassination, my knee-jerk response was "really?"
I didn't know much about Mass at the time. I remembered the hype surrounding its premiere at the star-studded opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971. I remembered that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned it from Bernstein to honor the memory of her late husband. I remembered that the reviews were mixed. I also knew that it was big‹big cast, big ideas, big budget. But that was the extent of my knowledge. I couldn't very well put together a production of Mass without knowing it better, so my education began.
My schooling included several evenings with the composer's original cast recording, a long discussion with today's reigning Celebrant, Doug Webster (who sings the role this month in Dallas), and a trip to New York to hear Webster and colleagues in a concert performance of Mass at Carnegie Hall. As is so often the case with symphonic music, familiarity bred not contempt, but respect. This sprawling, vibrant theater piece offers a little of everything, from the solemn chorales one expects in a mass to pseudo-rock, driving blues, and even a florid, operatic mad scene.
There is so much to absorb for an audience member at a Mass performance that I thought it might be helpful to share with you what I learned about this work, which Paul Hume of The Washington Post called "the greatest music Bernstein has ever written." So, to help you avoid Mass confusion, I give you, in nine easy-to-understand bullet points, a guide to ingesting, comprehending, and enjoying Mass.
* Follow the text. We have given you a program insert with the complete text of what is spoken and sung from the stage. Theatrical lighting prevents us from keeping the house lights too bright, but ambient light should permit you to read along as you listen and watch. The words are important in this piece.
* Expect something deeper than simple light entertainment. Bernstein is grappling with big issues here that touch us all‹keeping one's faith, coping with despair, surviving evil and corruption. There is much in Mass that entertains and diverts, but there is real substance as well.
* Trace the Celebrant's journey. More Everyman than priest, he morphs from a character of starry-eyed simplicity to one of weighty self-importance, then of disillusionment, desperation, and dementia before the work's uplifting finale. There will be moments when you look at him and see yourself.
* You don't have to be Roman Catholic to "get" this piece. The text of the Latin mass is followed closely, but it serves as a point of departure for more universal commentaries in song, in English, by the Celebrant and cast.
* Be prepared for anything, for sooner or later you'll get it. In the first 12 minutes alone you'll hear pre-recorded operatic coloratura immersed in a shower of percussion, followed by the folksy "Simple Song," which leads to jazzy scat-singing reminiscent of The Swingle Singers, which segues into a raucous circus march. Can you say "eclectic?" A friend, referring to two of Bernstein's most popular (but very different) works, describes Mass as "West Side Story meets Chichester Psalms."
* Being Sixties-smart helps. Bernstein's message is born of the Mass-age, the years leading up to the premiere of Mass in 1971. Anti-war protests, racial tension, social upheaval, and the fall of the Kennedy "Camelot" all contributed to the emotions that shaped this piece. Some feel the allusions to those Sixties phenomena date the text. But think about it‹is it really all that dated?
* View the lobby exhibits provided by The Sixth Floor Museum. The museum is a collaborator in this production and its memorabilia will help you put Mass in historical context.
* Hang around for the end. Mass lasts about an hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission, but its finale is a certifiable, lump-in-the-throat, reach-for-a-hankie experience.
* It's actually okay if you don't like this piece. Even distinguished critics couldn't agree: John Ardoin of The Dallas Morning News (as quoted in Humphrey Burton's excellent Bernstein biography) wrote, "It shook, exalted, and moved me as have few new statements in recent years." Harold C. Schonberg of The New York Times called it "pretentious and thin…cheap and vulgar." More important than liking it is thinking about it. It's the kind of piece that stays with you long after leaving the hall.
Mass will be performed November 22 and 23, 2003. For tickets, call 214-692-0203 or log on to www.DallasSymphony.com.
Mark Melson is the vice president of artistic operations for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.