A Mass of contradictions

Bernstein's controversial piece has found its target audience at last. The Vatican itself
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The Independent Culture

The young Celebrant raises the monstrance towards his congregation. "Dona nobis pacem", he chants, "Hoc est enim corpus meum!" ("This is My Body!"), "Hic est enim Calix Sanguins Mei!" ("This is the Chalice of My Blood!"). But the congregation are restless. They don't accept his words. They chant back: "Dona nobis pacem." And the chant becomes a demand. "Give us peace! Peace!" Whereupon the Celebrant's anxious call for prayer goes unheeded and a new music, a music of the streets, a cool, coarse, menacing blues, starts, almost imperceptibly, to underscore their demands. "Give us peace now and peace to hold on to, and God give us some reason to want to."

The young Celebrant raises the monstrance towards his congregation. "Dona nobis pacem", he chants, "Hoc est enim corpus meum!" ("This is My Body!"), "Hic est enim Calix Sanguins Mei!" ("This is the Chalice of My Blood!"). But the congregation are restless. They don't accept his words. They chant back: "Dona nobis pacem." And the chant becomes a demand. "Give us peace! Peace!" Whereupon the Celebrant's anxious call for prayer goes unheeded and a new music, a music of the streets, a cool, coarse, menacing blues, starts, almost imperceptibly, to underscore their demands. "Give us peace now and peace to hold on to, and God give us some reason to want to."

What is this? The music crescendos, a terrible wailing crescendo. "Give us answers, not psalms and suggestions!" The Celebrant moves to the high altar. Raises the monstrance. "We're fed up with your heavenly silence! And we only get action with violence." The crescendo is overwhelming, the Celebrant overwhelmed. He hurls the sacraments to the floor. Or would if they existed. But this time they are imagined. Look, no props.

Nothing imagined, though, about the row of cardinals sitting impassively at the head of the congregation. For this, unbelievably, is the Vatican and Leonard Bernstein's Mass hasn't undergone such scrutiny since Richard Nixon sent FBI spies into rehearsals, convinced that the Latin texts contained coded protests. "Dona nobis pacem"? Vietnam? Make love not war? Ah, the Sixties.

But there never has been anything coded about Bernstein's Mass. This "Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers" wore its colours openly and bravely from the start. It was Lenny's rallying cry to humankind in crisis. It kicked ass at the dawning of the age of Aquarius and greeted the Seventies with scepticism and hope. It was about faith lost and faith found. It was about those of us for whom faith - in the religious sense - was a tough call, for whom acceptance, belief, call it what you will, was compromised by too many unanswered questions and far too much uncomfortable reality. How to reach them? How to include them?

Through music, of course. Through music crossing every cultural barrier. There is so much music, so many different kinds of music, in Mass. It is significant that in his moment of greatest need, the Celebrant turns to song. And the melody he fashions from two notes, E and G - "Mi" and "Sol" (or as Stephen Schwartz's text puns "Me with Soul") - is a glorious thing.

For all its uncomfortable questions, its edgy and disarming street-cred, Mass has only ever threatened the paranoid in political and religious circles. It seems extraordinary now that factions within the Catholic Church could ever have regarded it as blasphemous. One of the very last things the Celebrant says is: "You sons of men, don't let him die again." But, as the Celebrant also says, "I go on". And so do we all. Including the Catholic Church.

So this ambitious presentation, as part of the 2000 Jubilee, at last entered into the spirit of this Mass for all. The performance, in the vast and very Seventies Paul VI Hall - a kind of aircraft hangar with stained glass - was relayed live to giant screens in St Peter's Square. A large orchestra and ecclesiastically robed chorus were drawn from the Santa Cecilia Conservatoire and a strong team of solo "street people" were flown in from the United States. So, too, Douglas Webster, the excellent Celebrant, and Boris Brott, the conductor and one-time assistant to Bernstein in New York.

It wasn't ideal. The venue, though suitably "in period", was too large and unmanageable for sound. Miking was compromised, as was the immediacy and physicality of Enrico Castiglione's production. The all-important pre-recorded tapes sounded feeble. No dancing in the aisles this time round. No dancing (Vatican protocol). And definitely no props. No monstrance. But Mass happened. At the Vatican. And as the Celebrant became one of the people once more and Bernstein's "Simple Song", duly transfigured, filled hearts and minds, you couldn't help but feel: so it's almost 30 years late, but it's a new start.

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