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 Moravian College Choir to perform Bernstein Mass

Music-Theater Piece Opened Kennedy Center in 1971

Leonard Bernstein's Mass(Bethlehem, PA)—The Moravian College Choir and most of the rest of the Music Department will perform a major work of the socially conscious ’70s for its spring concert: Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.

Traditionally, conductor Paula Ring Zerkle, director of choral activities at Moravian, chooses a major choral work with orchestra, such as a classical Mass or Requiem, to feature at the spring concert. This year she has picked the Mass that Bernstein was commissioned to write for the 1971 opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

“I wanted to involve some musical theater, because the students were interested in that,” she says of her decision to perform the Bernstein work. “We don’t have the facilities to do huge musical theater, and besides, the high schools do those all the time. I wanted something educational, fun, and provocative, and this seemed to be all those things.”

The Mass had a controversial premiere. Bernstein used it to comment on his own passionate views of American social and spiritual decay, as well as the possibilities for hope and renewal. He combined the liturgy of the Roman Catholic Mass with a “descant” text by Stephen Schwartz, composer of Godspell (1971), that comments on the liturgy. These songs are often designated as “tropes,” which is the same term used for spiritual commentary-interruptions in the movements of the Mass as it developed in the medieval church. PARENTAL NOTE: There is mild profanity in one song.

Bernstein was concerned with the fraying of American spiritual life, with the Vietnam War, and with the decline and failure of the programs of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. His commitment to a liberal social agenda was satirized by journalist Tom Wolfe in a famous essay called “Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers,” published with a sister essay called “Radical Chic” in 1987.

In the Mass, a chorus of street people “reinvent” the Catholic Mass. A sidewalk folksinger emerges from their midst to become the Celebrant, performing the Eucharistic ritual serving of bread and wine. As the chorus cries to him for food, comfort, and peace, he becomes more angry and frustrated that he cannot solve their problems. At last, he goes mad and sacrifices himself in lieu of the Eucharist.

The sacrificial section is a perfect example of Bernstein’s use of layered text and music: The choir sings the “fraction” anthem, a Latin response to the breaking of the wafer, while the Celebrant sings Schwartz’s commentary, “Things Get Broken,” referring to life in general and his own life in particular.

Perhaps America’s best-known composer for the Broadway musical West Side Story and such classical works as the “Kaddish” and “Jeremiah” symphonies, Bernstein (1918-90) drew on eclectic sources for the Mass: rock, jazz, electronic music, Gregorian chant, and Broadway sing-ability for such signature numbers as the opening “Simple Song.”

The first performance included more than 200 performers. Tenor Alan Titus sang the Celebrant, the Norman Scribner Choir of Washington, D.C., and the Berkshire Boy Choir were the chorus, and the Alvin Ailey American Dance Company supplied the dancers. The stage performers were accompanied by a full symphonic orchestra augmented with several rock bands.

Moravian’s production, using a chamber reduction provided by Bernstein’s estate, will feature Noah Rachels ’00 as the Celebrant and Matthew Bailey ’07, Reading, as the Preacher. The Choir will be joined by the Moravian College Women’s Chorus (singing the boys’ chorus parts) and orchestra with expanded percussion battery.

Rachels, who lives in New York City and is currently studying voice and making the rounds of opera and musical theater, was a student of Bronwyn Fix-Keller, an artist-lecturer in music who is staging the choral numbers for the Mass. Fix-Keller is the director of opera for the College.

Then a baritone, Rachels sang the role of Papageno in the Moravian College Opera Ensemble’s production of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte and participated in master classes at Moravian with international opera singers Paul Plishka and Sherrill Milnes and with retired Metropolitan Opera assistant conductor Gildo di Nunzio. He has been a scholarship student at the International School of Performing Arts in Doylestown, Penn. He currently studies with Susan Young and Charles Riecker as he makes the transition from baritone to tenor. He has sung at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and the Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, and he has a day job on the staff of Friends of Carnegie Hall, a fund-raising organization for the famous concert venue.

The Mass will be performed at 8:00 p.m. Saturday, April 17, and 4:00 p.m. Sunday, April 18, in Foy Concert Hall, part of the College’s Church Street campus in downtown Bethlehem. Tickets are $12, $6 students/seniors, from 610 861-1650.