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Leonard Bernstein's Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers was given a mixed reception upon its premiere as the inaugural production at the opera house of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 1971. A double-LP box set recording followed in the fall, and there were performances in several cities the next year, but the work, which mixed popular music genres with classical ones, never attracted a wide following. More than 30 years later, however, three recordings appeared during the first decade of the 21st century, one by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin conducted by Kent Nagano and made in November 2003; a second by the Tonkünstler-Orchester (the State Orchestra of Lower Austria) conducted by Kristian Järvi and made in February 2006; and this one by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra conducted by Marin Alsop and made in October 2008. While these versions are clearly inferior to the one Bernstein himself conducted in 1971, they serve to alert 21st century listeners that the composition is not just a time capsule of its era. That's the way some saw it in the early '70s, when it seemed of a piece with several other musical theater works that attempted to use the Christian religion to comment on the social turmoil of the period, notably Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell, the latter written by Stephen Schwartz, who also co-wrote the lyrics to Mass. In each work, the tradition-encrusted tale of Christ's life was contemporized in song with an emphasis on skepticism and even cynicism, sung in vernacular language and expressed musically in styles of rock and pop. Bernstein's version, based on the liturgy of the Roman Catholic mass, was the most musically ambitious and eloquent, tracing the ways in which Christian belief could be perverted and questioned. Creating a government-commissioned work, he may have been trying to "catch the conscience of the king," in his case, President Richard Nixon, who failed to attend the premiere. But his and Schwartz's attack on those who use Christianity for their own ends, as expressed in "God Said," with its specious justifications for anti-environmentalism and warmongering, must sound only too familiar to listeners familiar with the policies of President George W. Bush, who was in the White House when all three of the newer recordings were made. Sometimes, it seems the best way to be timeless is to be timely. As such, Alsop, like Järvi and Nagano, had the potential to create a version of Mass that spoke to her own generation as Bernstein attempted to speak to his. In all three cases, that opportunity has been squandered, however, and oddly enough in much the same ways. While the 1971 recording was full of impassioned performances reflecting the ripped-from-the-headlines quality of the writing, Alsop, just like Järvi and Nagano did, treats the work largely as a museum piece, rendering it as though it was some dusty opera, without much conviction. Musically, Alsop, again like Järvi and Nagano, hews far closer to the classical elements in the score, giving only cursory treatment to the pop music parts, which unbalances the work. If new recordings of Bernstein's Mass can reawaken debate about a composition that deserves to be remembered, what it really should do is send the curious back to the initial version. Perhaps a theatrical production handled by people less tied to the classical realm could bring the work back in a more meaningful way.
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