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Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ is back on stage in Baltimore

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The production, which draws from the Roman Catholic Mass, will honor the composer's 100th year.

In his time, Leonard Bernstein composed some of the most memorable and gripping Broadway shows. Productions like On the Town and West Side Story are still performed by theater companies across the country. Bernstein’s work displayed a certain desire to discover truth and beauty, a thematic element that is plainly apparent in his 1971 work: Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers.

The work employs sections of the Roman Catholic Mass, sung in Latin, which Bernstein fuses with additional English lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (of Godspell and Wicked). It follows a young priest who is shepherding his restless congregation through the liturgy. The styles of music change throughout the show, where the celebrant begins singing quietly in a folkish manner, by the end he is belting his voice operatically.

The celebrant gains control of his congregation in the closing minutes of the show, thanks to the sign of peace. Bernstein once described what he was trying to do with this scene:

“The chain of embrace grows and threads through the entire stage, ultimately with the audience and hopefully into the world outside.”

The English text is the driving force behind the drama of the show, as it expands upon, dissects, and challenges every portion of the liturgy. It is because of this, however, that Bernstein’s Mass drew criticisms from many Catholics in the 1970s. The original critics also frowned upon the eclectic variety of musical styles used throughout the show. The production calls for a full orchestra, a marching band, electric instruments, multiple choirs, pre-recorded tape and even kazoos.

This production is drawing its talent from all over the city of Baltimore. Presented by the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, it will feature the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernstein’s friend Marin Alsop, the Peabody Opera Theatre Orchestra, Peabody Singers, Peabody Children’s Chorus, Preparatory Wind Orchestra and members of the conservatory’s BFA Dance Program.

Choral contributions will come from the Morgan State University Choir, Peabody-Hopkins Chorus and additional vocalists recruited from Baltimore City College High School, Baltimore School for the Arts, Johns Hopkins University and New Psalmist Baptist Church.

The Baltimore Sun spoke with conductor Marin Alsop about working with a cast of nearly 500 participants, “There’s a journey just in listening to the piece, but the greater journey is working with all the performers from start to finish,” Alsop said. “Usually, you have a dedicated rehearsal period and you’re sort of held hostage by that. The most challenging thing this time is working on a schedule when the performers are trying to go to school, too.”

While the original production had several biting lines directed towards the Vietnam War, Alsop, who worked with Bernstein on the show, has adjusted some of them to mention more contemporary concerns, the director mentioned. “Instead of the Vietnam War, we’re dealing in our time with Freddie Gray,” the director says. “Instead of sexual liberation, we’re dealing with sex scandals in the church.”

Curtis Bannister, the actor tackling the role of the celebrant for the first time said, ““The city is very different from 2008, when the BSO performed it,” Bannister says. “The time is very different. That will give Mass a different feeling and poignancy. I think it’s going to be absolutely uplifting. And performing it at New Psalmist will draw in people from very different parts of the city.”

The production will open their curtain on October 26 at New Psalmist Church, in Baltimore. As it is a largely student-based production, it is not expected to run very long, so get your tickets now.

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