It was easy for critics to take shots at Leonard Bernstein's sprawling Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers when it first erupted noisily into the world upon its première in Kennedy Center nearly half a century ago. Was it ironic or sincere? What of its volatile swaying between quasi-pop amiability (or schmaltz) one moment, then austere neo-classical severity the next; these shifts in moods turning with the jarring suddenness and dramatic awe of a big rig attempting to navigate along the rim of a volcano?

Bernstein's <i>Mass</i> with Dudamel © Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association
Bernstein's Mass with Dudamel
© Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association

Bernstein’s Mass – a liturgical work which manages the feat of simultaneously running its own blasphemous commentary – was very much a product of its paranoid and exhausted epoch that was punctuated by political assassinations, surveillance state thuggery, urban rioting and economic stagnation. It was dismissed in its own time and could have been again last week, treated like so many curios of the period – like a kind of leisure suit one gawks at with smugness and sheepish admiration for its pleasing aesthetic far removed from today's more base concerns – when the Los Angeles Philharmonic, under Gustavo Dudamel, honored the centennial of the work’s composer by performing his most ambitious score last week.

Dudamel and the combined forces of the Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus and members of the UCLA Wind Ensemble opted to let the score be itself and let it all hang out in its sometimes noble, sometimes shaggy spectacle.

Bernstein's <i>Mass</i> with Dudamel © Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association
Bernstein's Mass with Dudamel
© Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association

With its pre-recorded effects and air of the theatre (the riotous arrival of the off-stage band!), the Bernstein Mass is a work that demands to be seen as well as heard in order to be fully grasped. With a visual team led by Seth Reiser, the performance vividly captured quality of spectacle that is so inextricably threaded into this work. A giant crucifix projected above the orchestra – imposing in its size and garish in its neon guise, recalling the sweaty, run-down churches of the urban poor as well as, perhaps, the red-light districts they sometimes are adjacent or part of – representing a faith that seems at once all-powerful, yet curiously vulnerable.

Below a team of dancers, the combined orchestra and choirs did their best to rise up with – and often against – the Celebrant conducting the proceedings (here sung with enviable stamina by Ryan McKinny). It was a testimony to the dedication of all the performers involved that they managed to convey this score's vigor and power so effectively, without a trace of condescension.

Bernstein's <i>Mass</i> with Dudamel © Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association
Bernstein's Mass with Dudamel
© Craig T Mathew | Mathew Imaging courtesy of LA Philharmonic Association

Like its creator, the work is a roiling concoction of extremes, with some passages among the most golden in the composer’s output, while others sounded as if they were tentatively forged out of lesser materials. The work cries out to be loved and adored one moment, but not before it spits back out at the listener in petulant rage the next. It would appear to tear down the idea of the mass (and by extension traditional Christianity), while retaining all the while a wide-eyed and child-like curiosity and maybe even affection for the very thing it tears to shreds.

Despite its tendency to digression and megalomania, perhaps this score may be the truest that ever flowed from the pen of Leonard Bernstein. It speaks to the excellence and devotion of last Thursday’s performance that from the morass of performers that sang, played and danced, it was his voice that one discerned above everyone else’s.

And it’s hard to overlook that in our paranoid and exhausted times, this is a work that not only has remained relevant but, like all great works of art, will speak to those now and in the future with an impassioned eloquence and power that defies the passing of the decades.

*****