American composer Leonard Bernstein is certainly an icon in the musical world. Known for writing music for most every conceivable genre (opera, musical theater, orchestra, piano, film scores, ballet, and more), perhaps one of his most iconic compositions is MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, it premiered on September 8, 1971 as part of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Originally, Bernstein had intended to compose a traditional Mass, but instead decided on a more innovative form. Although the liturgical passages are sung in Latin, MASS also includes additional texts in English written by Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, and Paul Simon.
MASS is an enormous piece. It calls for a large pit orchestra, two choruses plus a boy’s choir, a Broadway-sized cast (with ballet company), marching band and a rock band. It may seem ironic that such multitudes are marshaled for a work that celebrates a man’s “Simple Song”: his love and faith in God. But in the end, that simplicity is shown to be all the more powerful because of it.
The ambitious scope of this entire work can be intimidating to groups wishing to perform it. Now, Doreen Rao’s newly adapted and edited concert version of Bernstein’s epic theatre piece brings us this monumental music in a shortened and manageable edition of MASS for chorus, soloists and chamber orchestra. In her effort to bring the music of Leonard Bernstein to school, community and church choirs, Rao has managed to maintain the integrity of the mass form and the dramatic tension between faith and doubt by bringing us 40 minutes of what the late Rose Kennedy called a “stupendous” work – a work that celebrates diversity, inclusion and Bernstein’s passion for peace.