Tough times can test faith, but what emerges from challenges and examination can be strengthening and sustaining.
The regional premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass” will bring University of Virginia students and faculty members and community members to the Paramount Theater stage on Saturday and Sunday. Together, they will salute Bernstein’s centennial year with a work that blends theater and dance with music from diverse genres.
“It’s extremely powerful to experience live,” said conductor/producer Michael Slon, who will lead a cast of more than 150 singers and musicians.
Bernstein was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to write the work for the Sept. 8, 1971, opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. The commission came along at a time when the composer already was diving into musical responses to what he saw as “a societal crisis of faith,” Slon said.
“The intention of ‘Mass’ is to communicate as directly and universally as I can a reaffirmation of faith,” Bernstein wrote in the opening-night program.
Keep in mind that the performers will not be depicting an actual Mass.
“Bernstein would say this is not a Mass like Mozart would write,” Slon said. “It’s a theater piece about a Mass being celebrated — and challenged.”
The nation had gone in just a few years from mourning an assassinated president to wrestling with a polarizing military conflict. Bernstein already had been tackling musical responses to matters of faith in a changing and confusing world. So, for the Kennedy Center commission, he examined the structure of the Mass ritual “to take a structure of belief — in this case, a Roman Catholic Mass — and challenge it with questions and doubts so that a revised faith for a new age can be born out of this ritual,” Slon said.
Slon conducted a production of “Mass” while a graduate student at the Indiana University School of Music, and his research and experiences with the work played important roles in his doctoral dissertation. “The longest chapter of my dissertation is on this piece,” he said.
This weekend’s production will fill the Paramount’s stage with three choirs — the 90-member University Singers, of which Slon is music director; the 14-voice Street Chorus; and the 16-member DMR Youth Chorus — plus a 25-member orchestra, three dancers portraying acolytes and a soloist in the role of the Celebrant.
Tenor Kevin Vortmann, who has appeared as the Celebrant in productions across the country, reprises the role at the Paramount. His is the voice listeners hear on the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording of the work.
“I saw him last spring, and I would say he’s the best I’ve seen,” Slon said. “We’re thrilled to share him with local audiences. He brings a wealth of experiences and insights.”
Long before the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth arrived, UVa’s team was hard at work.
“Discussions for this started about two years ago,” Slon said. He turned to friends and longtime collaborators from the UVa Department of Drama to help bring the work to the stage; Bob Chapel serves as stage director, and Tom Bloom is scenic designer.
“I had directed this 31 years ago in Ann Arbor, Michigan,” said Chapel, a UVa Department of Drama veteran who served as producing artistic director of Heritage Theatre Festival before he retired.
Bloom served as set designer for that Michigan Theater production, too, and the musical director was Bradley Bloom, Tom Bloom’s late brother. “This piece means a lot to me in a lot of ways,” Chapel said.
Bringing in teammates with extensive theater experience helped Slon and his singers pursue Bernstein’s complex vision with confidence.
“It is a theater piece. It was not written to be a concert,” Chapel said. “It wouldn’t make as much sense if you just stood and sang all the time.”
Staging and choreography will make it clear that the work is more than a concert. Choreographer Demetia Hopkins-Greene formerly danced with the Alvin Ailey Dance Company; Ailey choreographed the 1971 Kennedy Center production.
Chapel said “Mass” captures a tense time in history without dating itself by referring directly to current events.
In 1971, when the work premiered, America was “heavily into the Vietnam War,” Chapel said. “Mass,” he said, is “definitely about revolt and people advocating against something, although the Vietnam War is never spoken about.
“It’s about being very unsettled in the world and rebelling against that.”
Bernstein already had been exploring, deconstructing and reassembling matters of faith in his “Symphony No. 3, ‘Kaddish’’’ in 1963 and “Chichester Psalms” in 1965. Putting the structure of the Mass setting under the microscope was a logical next step.
“Viewed across a long history, Mass settings can be said to be vessels which reflect within themselves the particular times of their production,” Slon wrote. “In this version, Bernstein takes up his deep concern with a modern crisis of faith. And while that crisis actually fractures the ritual of ‘Mass,’ it is the very ritual of musically enacting this crisis that leads, as Bernstein intends, to a renewal and reaffirmation of faith.”
“Mass” covers a lot of melodic and rhythmic ground, as Bernstein was at home in classical, jazz, musical theater and other genres. “He was a truly eclectic composer, in the greatest sense of the word,” Chapel said.
And after all the hurts and upheavals, Bernstein ultimately kept the faith with the country and world he loved.
“He just felt he had to create a new ritual of belief for a new era,” Slon said, so Bernstein led listeners on “this whole journey of doubt and challenge to a new, hard-won faith.”
UVa students can go to UVa’s Arts Box Office to obtain free tickets; a limited number will be made available to students. For details, visit artsboxoffice.virginia.edu.