Leonard Bernstein's multidimensional 'Mass' is a must-see

Mike Dunham
Anchorage Concert Chorus members rehearse their dance moves for "Mass."
LOREN HOLMES / Courtesy Anchorage Concert Chorus
Anchorage Concert Chorus members will take to the stage next weekend in the Atwood Concert Hall to perform Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."

Next weekend will bring us the Alaska premiere of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers." The Anchorage Concert Chorus will be joined by the Alaska Children's Choir, Alaska Dance Theatre and the Dimond High School Symphonic Band.

A small electric rock band ensemble is mixed in with the orchestra. The versatile Steven Alvarez, who has previously performed the roles of Jesus Christ ("Superstar") and Che Guevara ("Evita"), will be featured in the extensive solo part of the Celebrant.

In addition to two performances in Atwood Concert Hall, at 8 p.m. Friday, and 4 p.m. next Sunday, there will be a free panel discussion at 4 p.m. Thursday in Room 307 of the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Local Christian and Jewish clergy will join Gerald Moshell, the stage director of the production, to talk about Bernstein's piece with regard to broader ideas about public art and a multicultural society.

Alvarez will present some selections from the work. Members of the public who attend the panel will be able to get tickets to performances for half-price.

"Mass" may be the most celebrated serious composition by an American of the past half century. Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned the work for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971 and is said to have suggested to Bernstein -- a Jew by birth and free-thinker by inclination -- the idea of using the church liturgical form that previously provided the framework for masterpieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and others.

Bernstein had a secure reputation as a conductor as well as a Broadway composer, with "Wonderful Town" and "West Side Story" to his credit. His status as a "serious" composer, at least in his own mind, was more open to question.

Receiving the commission shortly after his 50th birthday, he was keenly aware of the fact that few classical composers established themselves as masters with works written later in life. He threw himself into the project, agonizing over details right up to the last moment. Collaborators included Stephen Schwartz, composer of "Godspell," and Paul Simon.

While Bernstein's "Mass" uses the language of the Roman missal, both in Latin and English, it adds text extrapolating aspects of the ancient words as the Celebrant, acolytes, street singers and others comment musically, verbally or by dance. The theatrical aspect revolves around a crisis of faith on the part of the Celebrant.

The debut drew mixed reactions. Some churchmen were moved; others found it blasphemous. President Nixon didn't attend because of Bernstein's leftist politics. Others begged off due to having already heard enough of the composer's earlier, often lugubrious, stabs at writing serious music. The New York Times' critic sniffed at the attempt to mix religious sentiment with show tunes.

Bernstein could find solace in the fact that the original recording sold phenomenally well. Forty years after its premiere, it continues to be widely performed. In the "all is forgiven" category, the Pope himself attended a production at the Vatican during the Jubilee Year of 2000.

But that success has not been enough to put Bernstein into the widely circulated lists of great classical composers. His fame still rests on the ballad and dance numbers from "West Side Story," which are so popular that it's hard to say anyone would pay attention to the rest of his music.

Among the more problematic aspects of the writing is the attempt to incorporate '60s rock, a genre that ultimately remained alien to this composer (among many others). While he was intrigued by rock lyrics -- Bernstein was a lifelong poetry enthusiast -- from a musical perspective, his pop sensibilities seemed more firmly cemented in the swing and bop of his own youth.

Which is not to say that one should find something else to do this weekend. On the contrary; "Mass" is sufficiently complex and so rarely performed outside big markets -- and potentially profound, depending on aspects of presentation that have yet to be known -- that I put this down as a "must-see" as soon as it was announced.

We've heard the recording; many have enjoyed what they heard. But to see it will surely add depth and dimension required to put Bernstein's magnum opus into proper perspective.

Tickets are available at centertix.net.

Yup'ik dance volume wins award

I've never heard that Leonard Bernstein knew anything about "yuraq," also known as "Eskimo dance," the sophisticated combination of song, poetry, dance, pantomime and drumming.

But something about "Mass" reminds me of the art form.

A recent book from University of Alaska Press, "Yupiit Yuraryarait: Yup'ik Ways of Dancing," deals with yuraq in depth, with text by Theresa John and Ann Fienup-Riordan and fabulous photos by James Barker -- who has documented the revival of Native dance for decades.

The book was recently honored with the Alaska Library Association's 2011 Alaskana Award at the association's annual conference in Juneau. The award "is presented annually to titles that make a significant contribution to the understanding of Alaska and that exhibit originality, depth of research, and knowledge of Alaska."

Speaking of which, the annual Yup'ik dance festival in Bethel, Cama-i, will take place at the end of this month, March 25-27.

Music in the dark

The raven that blew out electric power for downtown Anchorage last Sunday didn't stop the Alaska Chamber Singers from presenting their concert of folk songs in Sydney Laurence Theatre.

Emergency lights remained on, so the singers lined up in the "box" seats, where several exits provided the most illumination.

Conductor David Hagen positioned himself somewhat in the middle of it all. Reports from the hall say the acoustics from that position were as good as from on stage.

Last look?

In 2010 we reported that the giant ice carving extravaganza in Fairbanks, Ice Alaska, was in danger of losing its long-term home on land owned by the Alaska Railroad.

That report ended on a note of optimism, with various politicians suggesting that it would all work out happily. The latest word, however, is that an accommodation has not been reached and, when the show ends this month, the organizers will have to take their things and leave.

So see it while you can.

Arts council meeting

The Alaska State Council on the Arts will hold its quarterly meeting on Friday from noon to 1:30 p.m. at the council offices, 161 Klevin St., Suite 102, Anchorage.

The public is welcome to attend. For details or teleconference instructions, please contact the council office at 269-6610 or toll free 888-278-7424.

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

Blog: Art Snob