Breaking point: Approaching 50 years, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass remains relevant

Michael Slon conducts more than 150 singers, musicians, and dancers in Mass at the Paramount on Saturday and Sunday, October 13 and 14. The musical theater piece by Leonard Bernstein has been revived to honor the 100th anniversary of the iconic composer and conductor’s birth. Photo by Amy Jackson Smith Michael Slon conducts more than 150 singers, musicians, and dancers in Mass at the Paramount on Saturday and Sunday, October 13 and 14. The musical theater piece by Leonard Bernstein has been revived to honor the 100th anniversary of the iconic composer and conductor’s birth. Photo by Amy Jackson Smith

Half of the people are stoned / and the other half are waiting for the next election. / Half the people are drowned / and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.”

This quatrain may bring a contemporary alternative-rock song or spoken-word critique on the political climate to mind, but it’s actually from a 47-year-old musical theater piece that simultaneously embraces and questions the country’s religious practices and spirituality.

The verse appears in the 15th movement of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, a 32-movement piece commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 1971. According to a note in its first program, Paul Simon wrote the quatrain and gave it to Bernstein as a Christmas present, even though both men were Jewish.

Bernstein composed the work 14 years after West Side Story, eight years after Kennedy’s assassination, three years after the My Lai massacre in Vietnam claimed thousands of lives, and one year after members of the Ohio National Guard killed four Kent State students protesting the U.S. bombing of Cambodia. The primary role is that of a Catholic priest (the Celebrant), who must face an increasingly aloof and contentious congregation, represented by Bernstein’s Street Chorus. Harkening to traditional themes of Greek theater, Mass tells a story of hubris and an eventual reaffirmation of faith.

“There was a newer distrust of large institutions. It’s a piece that is of its time and ahead of its time,” says Michael Slon, conductor and producer of the regional premiere of Mass at the Paramount on Saturday. The performance is part of a global celebration of the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth.

Slon is director of choral music and an associate music professor at UVA, where he also conducts the University Singers and UVA Chamber Singers, in addition to guest conducting the Charlottesville Symphony and serving as the Oratorio Society’s music director.

During the Paramount performances of Mass, the University Singers share the stage with members of the DMR youth chorus, as well as an ensemble of Charlottesville and UVA student singers performing as the Street Chorus, accompanied by an orchestra and with a dance performance choreographed by Demetia Hopkins-Greene. The massive cast includes more than 150 members.

After writing his dissertation on Mass as well as Bernstein’s Kaddish Symphony and Chichester Psalms, Slon is well-versed in the American musical icon’s productions.

“What Mass attempts to do, on the one hand, is to set up a structure of belief through the text of Catholic Roman rite. On the other hand, it challenges that structure of belief through English texts in the vernacular that are meant to present questions to that structure of belief,” says Slon. In the opposing forces, Mass reaches an incredible climax that comes to a breaking point, Slon explains. “From the broken rubble of the ritual, Bernstein builds up what he describes in the original Kennedy Center program as a ‘reaffirmation of faith.’”

Slon calls Mass part opera, musical theater, and dramatic theological play, and part ritual.

He’s worked on this performance for two years, joined by set designer and UVA drama professor Tom Bloom, and stage director and former UVA drama faculty member Bob Chapel. Chapel is no stranger to Bernstein or the stage either. By his own estimate, Mass marks his 100th production of a musical, and his 140th production overall. In fact, Chapel directed Mass 31 years ago for the reopening of The Michigan Theater in Ann Arbor. The production featured an 85-piece orchestra performing in front of 2,000 audience members.

“It’s very, very tough music for performers to learn,” Chapel says, pointing out that there is little dialogue in the piece. “Bernstein is presenting music that is classical, jazz, rock, blues, and some electronic music throughout the whole piece. There are a lot of moving parts. For people that don’t know it, it’s a very difficult piece to learn.”

Another Mass veteran performing in the Paramount’s presentation is Kevin Vortmann, who will sing Bernstein’s role of the Celebrant. In addition to appearing in a variety of on- and off-Broadway productions, Vortmann’s experience as the Celebrant includes a performance with the Cincinnati May Festival and a Grammy-nominated rendition with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Vortmann flew in from Seattle at the end of September and joined the cast for the first time.

“He opened his mouth to sing the first song and the Street Chorus—who are all really good singers—their jaws dropped,” Chapel says. “He’s a magnificent tenor. …Everyone is spot-on. They’re good actors, they move well and there is great diversity.”

Slon agrees. He calls the cast a talented collection of artists who have come together to perform a piece that is “very transformative to experience live.”

Mass puts extraordinary demands on performers in terms of the size of forces involved,” says Slon. “There are a number of disparate, modular elements that have to come together in a unified whole. It’s a challenging piece musically, and dramatically, to pull off well.”

But Slon and Chapel have faith in their cast and crew.

“It’s very relevant in terms of what I find to be tremendous turmoil and rebellion to power right now,” Chapel says. “That’s what this piece is all about. It’s incredibly relevant to our country and the world right now, but especially our country.”

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