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Louisville Orchestra Takes On Bernstein's 'Mass' — And All Its Complexities

Teddy Abrams
J. Tyler Franklin
Teddy Abrams

The tradition of writing music for the Catholic Mass is deep and storied, going back hundreds of years. Most of the great classical composers have written a Mass, or more than one; the liturgical form stays the same, and the style of the music reflects the time in which it was written.

And then there's Leonard Bernstein's "Mass."

Composed in 1971 for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., Bernstein's "Mass" is a theatrical piece that incorporates the traditional Catholic Mass but expands on it, embellishes it, and even questions it.

Louisville audiences will get their first chance to hear this rarely performed work this weekend, as the Louisville Orchestra opens its 2015-16 season with two performances of "Mass." Baritone Jubilant Sykes, who earned a Grammy nomination for his 2009 recording of this piece with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, will sing the leading role of The Celebrant.

Along with the orchestra, the performers in this fully staged work include three choirs, a rock band, a blues band, a marching band, and a troupe of actors and dancers. The piece is rarely performed because of its complexity.

Although the entire text of the Latin Mass is included in the piece, there are additional lyrics in English written by Bernstein, by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz, and by songwriter Paul Simon.

In a conversation with WUOL's Daniel Gilliam, Louisville Orchestra Music Director Teddy Abrams said Bernstein took the traditional form of a Catholic Mass and made something new.

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"It's a Mass, in some ways like a Mozart or a Haydn Mass, but what it really is, is a piece of theater that is set during a Mass but ultimately looks at the world's and our personal viewpoints on the big questions," Abrams said.

Sykes has performed the role numerous times, but he was initially hesitant to take it on. He said it was the words of The Celebrant, who questions his own faith, that drew him in.

"I could see the pain and the angst, and if I may be so bold, even the brokenness of this great man, Bernstein. And something about that resonated with me," Sykes said.

The music of "Mass," which includes many different genres and sounds, is emblematic of Bernstein's approach, said Abrams.

"Bernstein is one of the best-known, most important American artists in any genre. He’s somebody that really summed up a spirit and a sound of this country," Abrams said.

The Louisville Orchestra performs Bernstein's "Mass" on Saturday at 8 p.m. and again on Sunday at 3 p.m. at the Kentucky Center. Find more information here.

(Featured image by J. Tyler Franklin/WFPL News)

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