What a mixture were the life and works of Leonard Bernstein! Conductor –composer, 'straight' music – popular, homosexual – hetero. for starters; and at the Proms on August 6 his Mass which is a theatre piece with the framework of a Catholic Church ritual but with a Celebrant (Jewish) who moralizes what is a thinly disguised apology for the life of …. Leonard Bernstein.
We all know that Bernstein could write wonderful tunes of immediate appeal but here in his Mass he writes melodiously but not memorably, nothing catchy although his intent is clearly to change the world for the better as well as to apologize for himself. But the text is sloppy, full of word-play that is often verging on vulgarity and sentimental, making many of his audience squirm with embarrassment. Yet I am bound to report that on the whole the audience seemed to like the piece.
The Mass involves a Celebrant (Danish baritone, Morton Frank Larsen, brilliant performer), a boy (Julius Foo, Eton scholar), a band playing out-of-date jazz-style, a symphony orchestra (combined BBC National Orchestra of Wales and the National Youth Orchestra of Wales) and umpteen children's choirs, all Welsh. There were something like four hundred children behind the orchestra and they added a beneficial dimension to the performance (105 minutes). For this horde of children did not just behave circumspectly Bach-Choir-style but, directed by (German) Thomas Kiemle, they showed their emotions, swaying, moving about, almost dancing; they were a force, the best thing in the show.
There was also what Bernstein called a Street Choir who represented the People, reacting to the textual situations. Amid all the Welsh was the Estonian but-raised-in-America Kristjan Järvi, conducting proceedings with a firm, sure hand.
Bernstein had composed one masterwork of our time (West Side Story), several more fine theatre works, a few concert works of great value (including the Chichester Psalms), quite a few stodgy orchestral works, the marvellous Candide but the Mass is surely a failure. There are many things about America to admire but Bernstein's kind of brash moralizing is not one of them.