En ‘Mass’: Penn State performers come together for Leonard Bernstein’s masterpiece

A performance can be entertaining, educational and emotional. There is much preparation to be done among the production staff and performers, and the task can sometimes seem overwhelming. But when it all comes together just right, it becomes a work of art that can transform people from all walks of life.

The stars will align perfectly at Eisenhower Auditorium April 5-6 for a collaborative production of “Leonard Bernstein Mass,” a theater piece for singers, players and dancers from Penn State’s schools of music and theater and the Center for the Performing Arts. The massive undertaking is the centerpiece for the 50th anniversary celebration of Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture. The production includes Penn State’s Philharmonic Orchestra, Concert Choir, Essence of Joy, singers and dancers from the schools of music and theater and a community children’s choir.

Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, “Mass” debuted at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in 1971. Bernstein’s masterpiece is based on the Roman Catholic liturgy and includes passages sung in Latin with additional texts in English by Bernstein, Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz and songwriter Paul Simon. Originally intended to be staged theatrically, it is also now performed in a standard concert setting. Scored for orchestra, marching and rock bands, actors and dancers, the work also features rock, blues, Broadway and classical music.

The Bernstein composition is being directed by Ted Christopher, assistant professor of music and artistic director of the Opera Theatre at Penn State. Christopher said this production has been a group effort among the performers and staff members, including choreographer Spence Ford and staging director Matt Toronto.

“Mass” is being presented as part of the celebration of the College of Arts and Architecture’s 50th anniversary, which Christopher said is appropriate for this special occasion.

“I think that it is a most fitting way to honor the work we all do in the College of Arts and Architecture, which is collaborative and interdisciplinary,” he said.

Performers were selected from auditions in November and began rehearsals in January, and include singers and dancers. The performance also includes a children’s choir and has a large amount of community involvement. Perhaps one of the most important elements is the music that has been selected for this production. Music director Beverly Patton said Bernstein tried to create a body of work that would cover the entire spectrum of society in a musical sense, but also culturally and religiously.

“It’s a real conglomeration of all kinds of styles, and it follows the ordinary of the Catholic service, but with a real story behind it about real people and their quest for faith,” she said. “So you have everything from extremely religious, almost hymn-like music to basic rock ’n’ roll.”

Behind the more than 300 performers onstage, and the number of musical styles and performances displayed, Bernstein’s purpose for “Mass” has one simple message that all people can relate to.

“The message that Bernstein wanted to convey to people was that everyone goes through crises of faith,” Patton said. “The foundation of faith is forgiveness and hope. That’s his universal theme.”

Christopher described Bernstein’s message in a more narrative sense.

“ ‘Mass’ is in many respects the story of the personal discovery of meaning in life, but it is also about becoming aware that we all need each other — that we are incomplete alone,” he said.

“That is the final message of ‘Mass’ as the last beautiful choral ‘Almighty Father’ is sung and played by everybody.”

“Leonard Bernstein Mass” will start at 7:30 p.m. April 5 and 2 p.m. April 6 at Eisenhower Auditorium, University Park. Call 800-ARTS-TIX or visit www.music.psu.edu.