‘Bernstein’s Mass: Finding the Sacred in the Profane’ April 13 in Janesville, Wis.

By Dr. Rob Tomaro
Arts Correspondent and Music Director of the Beloit Janesville Symphony

When Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned Leonard Bernstein to compose a piece for the gala opening of Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971, she didn’t know he would use the opportunity to wheel in a musical Trojan Horse that would disgorge a troupe of wild-eyed hippie performers protesting the war in Vietnam in front of every politician in town, but J. Edgar Hoover did. He convinced President Richard M. Nixon to stay away from the premiere, fearing that Bernstein might be plotting to embarrass the federal government, which he was.

Jackie should have guessed. After all, it was for Bernstein that Tom Wolfe coined the 1960s catch phrase “radical chic” after attending a soiree at his Fifth Avenue penthouse and watching a bewildered Truman Capote rub elbows with the leaders of the Black Panther Party.

Jackie probably thought she would be getting Bernstein’s Godspell, not his Hair. For the form of his musical extravaganza, he chose the time-honored acid test of classical composers, the liturgy of the Catholic Mass, as did Bach, Mozart and Beethoven before him, but sandwiched in between “Kyrie Eleison” and “Gloria in Excelsis,” he gives us lines like: “Half the people are stoned and half are waiting for the next election!” One can almost see the Joint Chiefs of Staff turning purple in their tuxedos, unable to duck and cover as Bernstein’s crypto-bomb unfolded before them. Bernstein’s intended ending was to have the Celebrant (narrator) stomp to the back of the empty stage and yell back at the audience: “And we don’t need your (blanking) war!” before storming out on the last orchestral chord, slamming the door behind him. It wasn’t until the dress rehearsal that his entire staff, on bended knee, implored and finally convinced him to leave it out.

The intervening years have bestowed upon this ungainly masterpiece a gentle patina of nobility and something like grace, which went unrecognized in its tumultuous origins. Rising from the chorus, Bernstein’s jabs at our foibles and failings somehow merge with his deeply felt evocation of the sacred part of us, hidden under the flawed surface of our humanity.

I met him once, in the 1980s, at a rehearsal of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony at the Tanglewood Music Festival. His love for the music and for the members of the orchestra was palpable enough to bring me to tears, and I resolved on the spot to try to become a conductor some day.

I will be conducting the Beloit Janesville Symphony performing this eclectic masterpiece along with the Rock Valley Concert Choir, the Rock Valley Chamber Singers and a wonderful professional group from Rockford, the Elysian Voices under the direction of Professor Paul Laprade.

We will also present Aaron Copland’s elegiac ode to Americana: The Promise of Living from his opera The Tender Land and, paired with Mass, Bernstein’s other great sacred choral work: Chichester Psalms, composed a few years earlier.

In a tradition dating from the 17th century, the Cathedral of Chichester in Sussex commissions a new composer each year to present a choral setting of biblical psalms. In 1965, they got Bernstein. However, he eschewed setting the psalms either in English or Latin, and chose instead to have them sung in Hebrew. So radical. So chic. So Bernstein.

Bernstein’s Mass: Finding the Sacred in the Profane” — featuring The Beloit Janesville Symphony, with Robert Tomaro, music director; The Rock Valley Concert Choir; The Rock Valley College Chamber Singers; and Elysian Voices, under the direction of Paul Laprade — will be at 3 p.m., Sunday, April 13, at The Janesville Performing Arts Center, 408 S. Main St., Janesville, Wis. Tickets are $20 at Beloitjanesvillesymphony.org, at (608) 313-1200 or at the door.

Robert Tomaro is music director for life of the Beloit Janesville Symphony Orchestra. He holds an master of arts and a Ph.D. in composition from New York University, where he served as music director of the New York University Symphony Orchestra. He has performed with premier orchestras the world over, including The London Symphony, The Slovak Radio Orchestra, The Silesian Philharmonic, The Black Sea Philharmonic, The Moravian Philharmonic, The Crakow Sinfonietta, and extensively throughout Europe and Scandinavia. Tomaro will write about the area’s classical music scene and other matters that interest him.

From the March 12-18, 2014 print edition

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