Leonard Bernstein’s Mass dates from the fade-out of his years as an important composer. After 1971 there would be the pathetic operatic venture A Quiet Place, the failed Broadway project 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. and its various spinoffs, and several inconsequential concert works. The music of Mass was little better than any of these, but the circumstances that surrounded it (as an inaugural piece for Washington’s Kennedy Center, composed at Jacqueline Kennedy’s personal request) and the nature of the collaboration (on a first-name basis with the Almighty Himself) have served to hold its place. At the Hollywood Bowl last Thursday the case for Mass – that’s the title, by the way, no “The” – was eloquently set forth and well attended and cheered; whatever the reason, the work lives on. A new recording, led by Kent Nagano, is due out on Harmonia Mundi in October, with the rather curious choice of an operatic tenor, Jerry Hadley, as the Celebrant. (Was Pavarotti not to be had?) At the Bowl the robust eloquence of Jubilant Sykes was the spellbinding alternative.
Well I remember hot, sticky Washington nights in September 1971. The papers reported that audiences – Supreme Court justices, Hubert Humphrey, Bernstein himself, but not, of course, the Nixons – wept copiously at the messages of brotherhood and courage set forth in all this terribly earnest, appallingly contrived balderdash. Never mind that the best of it turned out to be blatant reruns of better, briefer, happier Bernstein bits – the sardonic “America” number from West Side Story, for one, hardly a patriotic, liturgical or architectural tribute. Then, as now, the manipulation stuff was masterful; there is no power on Earth to resist the throat-grab as a small boy (Eugene Olea this time) with sublimely pure soprano tones comes onto a chaos-strewn stage and sings of “secret songs to God.”
This is, as you surely must know, a vast theater piece, conceived as a trope around the Roman Mass but turned ecumenical by musical and dance visitations from dozens of other cultures (including, of course, Lenny’s old pal Adonai, whom he had once beguiled with warm chicken soup in a piece called Kaddish). Alvin Ailey had done the original choreography; at the Bowl, Kay Cole maintained the plan, which involves onstage hordes of casually dressed youngsters throwing their arms around and generally behaving the way show-biz professionals imagine show-biz kids act (something they learn from road-show companies of Bye Bye Birdie). Brass bands come out and tootle; a rock band plays the cleanest rock this side of Lawrence Welk; and all the while a text is being run through (Lenny plus God plus more words provided by Godspell‘s Stephen Schwartz, newly revised), full of 1971 hang-ups: a handbook of radical chic, man, rewritten by the editors of My Weekly Reader.
There are purple moments in Mass, and they uphold every glowing report about the unique, daring genius who set them forth. The tragedy lies in the way they crumble. From lack of interest or from the inability to sustain the arch of a grandiose thought, one great moment after another in Bernstein’s “serious” music simply collapses, as if someone has flicked the switch on life-support. Something like this happens about midway through Mass. The Celebrant himself suffers a momentary crisis of faith, and launches into a recitation that begins to take the form of a mad scene in some as-yet-unwritten bel-canto opera.
But there was music in those Donizetti mad scenes; in the Bernstein version, there is barrenness, a sudden, expressive vacuum in which a stageful of excellent performers under Marin Alsop – the Philharmonic, the Pacific Chorale, the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, marching bands, dancers, singers and dancers, all tidily arranged by director Gordon Hunt to turn the Bowl stage into something resembling a very classy bank lobby – have been completely abandoned by the creative force they were there to serve. I actually felt a chill from this sudden absence, and it occurred to me that I had felt that same chill on a hot, miasmic Washington evening in 1971, faced with the same sad masterwork. A few minutes later some new Bernstein ideas clicked in, the little boy came out and sang his solo, and the music sped to its finish.
But that was the sad story of Bernstein’s aspirations as a “serious” composer; the higher the aim, the more abject the result. The great works – the shows above all – cavort and scamper and, once in a while, even thrill; they whiz from one purple patch to the next, and we come out of the theater having willingly sacrificed two hours of our own breathing. This is the music that will last as long as people care about theater. Now, when “classical” or “serious” or whatever-you-want-to-call-it music faces extinction, bad music like this clumsy, unworkable Bernstein repertory only adds further density to the gathering cloudbank. There’s a Bernstein newsletter called Prelude, Fugue and Riffs, named after one of the lesser pieces, like naming a Beethoven newsletter King Stefan. It perpetuates news of performances of the big, dead concert works, the very ones that do the reputation the most damage, an elaborate, sad study in the art of kicking a dead horse.
In the best film scores, hearing the music can serve to re-create the scene itself: the look of it, and what it did the first time we saw it. Leonard Bernstein knew this, and it’s sad that he didn’t give more time to the art; his On the Waterfront music simply throbs with Jersey grayness and Brando, and that was his one work in the genre. Elmer Bernstein (no relation; they agreed early on, Elmer told me, that he would be “Steen” and Lenny “Stein”) gave his life to that genre, happily, until its end last week. I love the versatility: the ease in the way he brought jazz into bigtime films without ruining it (e.g., the way he used Chico Hamilton’s Quintet in Sweet Smell of Success), the way he could do Western skies (in The Magnificent Seven) without making it inevitable that John Wayne would have to come riding around the next bend, and, above all, the deep, rich humanity of the father and those kids in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Mockingbird has to be everybody’s favorite, but I have another couple. One is a tiny moment in Sweet Smell, a tender parting near the end, with a solo clarinet picking up the mood for just a few seconds. Elmer was delighted when I told him how much I valued that moment, because he did, too. The other is the score he did for the designer Charles Eames for a short film all done with old-fashioned toy trains running through a toy landscape; it’s on a DVD collection of Eames short subjects, a lovely disc. It was the first music of Elmer Bernstein I ever heard, at a film festival in 1954, and I was sure they had gotten the name wrong. They hadn’t.