The recent hundredth anniversary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth inspired a massive and global celebration that has included remembrances, tributes and concert events for a man whose cultural contributions are truly immeasurable. The magnitude of the occasion was hardly lost on those here at the University. More than two years ago, University Singers Director Michael Slon began discussions about this with Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa and with colleagues in the Drama Department, Bob Chapel and Tom Bloom. As fate would have it, Slon, Chapel, and Bloom all had experience with productions of Bernstein’s Mass, a genre-bending work that spans the worlds of music, theatre, and dance. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis on the occasion of the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the piece finds Bernstein turning his musical brilliance and critical eyed toward the Roman Catholic Mass, as a means of exploring what he termed a “crisis of faith” in an America still reeling from the death of President Kennedy and from the continuing social and political upheaval around the Vietnam War. Bernstein’s Mass questions and challenges the tenets of the mass and the rituals at its core, while taking audiences on an unforgettable and genre-spanning journey that goes from doubt and struggle to newfound and hard-won faith.
The production, led by Slon, with stage direction from Chapel and scenic design by Bloom, was presented at The Paramount Theater on October 13 and 14, marking the work’s regional premiere. It featured more than 150 performers (100 of whom were UVA students and faculty), including an orchestra, three choruses: the University Singers, the DMR Youth Chorus, and a Street Chorus made up of guest artists drawn from UVA and the broader community, as well as soloists and dancers. The experience, Slon said, was an extraordinary one for the students who participated, and for audiences alike. “There is something powerful and transformative about experiencing this piece firsthand,” he said. “Bernstein’s Mass is unlike anything most people have ever seen. It truly defies description in terms of genre – it is part opera, part musical theatre, part dramatic theological play, and part ritual.” The unforgettable event was made possible through support from the UVA Department of Music, the Office of the Provost and Vice Provost for the Arts, the Arts Endowment, the UVA Parents Fund, and Laurie & Cary Turner.