Marin Alsop
The New York Times

LEONARD BERNSTEIN, wherever he is, must surely be kvelling over the supersize 90th-birthday party New York is giving him: a multievent extravaganza that began last month, continues into December and involves nearly every musical organization in the city. The crowning centerpiece of this great love feast has to be Bernstein's "Mass," possibly his most flamboyant and controversial creation.

Described in the score as "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," this work covers a vertiginous stylistic gamut with acid rock and 12-tone serialism, Renaissance polyphony and Mahler, jazz, Broadway and down-home Americana. In the midst of this musical tumult a young man undergoes a crisis of faith as he tries to celebrate Mass but is assaulted on all sides by the extremes of contemporary life. The Celebrant's spirit may be broken at the end, but his message of healing and hope spreads over the audience as the chorus sings a final benedictory "lauda, laudé Deum."

On Sunday afternoon, Carnegie Hall begins its "Bernstein ‘Mass' Project: A Choral Exploration" in Zankel Hall with excerpts from the score and performances of original choral anthems, composed and sung by New York City high school students, based on the themes of faith, doubt, tolerance and renewal that drive "Mass." On Friday evening, in Carnegie's main auditorium, Marin Alsop leads a full concert performance of the work with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, the Morgan State University Choir and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. And on Saturday afternoon Ms. Alsop takes "Mass" to the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights, where more than 500 New York students will join in a performance that promises to embrace the entire community. Bernstein would have loved this. He always wanted "Mass" to be experienced in a diversity of settings, formal and informal.

It's been 37 years since "Mass" was first seen, the inaugural presentation at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, when it opened its doors on Sept. 8, 1971. Everything Bernstein wrote generated heated opinions, but "Mass" really stirred the pot that night, and it is unlikely that the arguments will ever cease.

The most devastating critique of the premiere came from Harold C. Schonberg, then the chief music critic of The New York Times and for years Bernstein's No. 1 nemesis in the press. "A combination of superficiality and pretentiousness," Schonberg summed up in a Sunday article, "and the greatest mélange of styles since the ladies' magazine recipe for steak fried in peanut butter and marshmallow sauce."

Other critics were less brutal. There were even extravagant encomiums, not all of them from music critics. Bernstein especially treasured a fan letter from Paul Moore Jr., Episcopal bishop of New York, who wrote about how moved he had been by the piece's creativity and its deep insights about the priesthood and theology of the Eucharist. As for me, I was prepared by the advance buzz to sneer but came away surprised, even humbled, by a work that risked so much and put the stakes so high. However one reacted to that first exposure in Washington, "Mass" seemed to get under everyone's skin.

That's not surprising. Bernstein left nothing of himself out of "Mass," and like the man who wrote it, the piece demands to be noticed. It is crammed with contradictions and jolting juxtapositions, a phantasmagoria made up of startling personal revelations, social and spiritual statements that don't care whom they offend and a dizzying mix of compositional styles that defines and guides its entire musical character. Who wouldn't take exception to something along the way?

After the first New York performances, at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1972, I talked to Bernstein about "Mass." Even he seemed a bit unsure where the work belonged in the grand scheme of things, and he was naturally rattled by its mixed critical reception.

"I still don't quite know where its true home should be," he wrote in a letter. "Is it the Vienna State Opera or a high school auditorium? Perhaps both. The piece needs time to find its proper place, and right now I feel there should be a bit of a cooling-off period until I can recognize what its true dimensions are. Of one thing I'm sure. The work was conceived so totally in theater terms that I almost cannot recognize it divorced from its theatrical setting."

So Bernstein would probably be disappointed that "Mass" is almost always encountered these days in a concert hall. Performances under such formal conditions, at least those I've seen, never seem to generate the same gut thrill delivered by that first fully staged production.

The basic structure is that of the Roman Catholic Mass, as sung and played by a choir and pit orchestra, but Bernstein inserted elements that elaborate and comment on the liturgy, using a blues band, a rock band, a street chorus (with kazoos) and the Celebrant, whose painful journey into chaos is the focus of the drama. The entire concept cries out to be experienced as a living, dramatic pageant in which the visual energy complements the musical energy.

Some critics turned off by "Mass" will probably never get past the post-Woodstock aura that hovers over a work conceived by a fierce liberal under the shadow of the Vietnam War. Those nauseated 37 years ago by the "groovy" lyrics (mostly by Stephen Schwartz, author of the rock musical "Godspell" with John-Michael Tebelak) are unlikely to have changed their minds about lines like: "God said: Let there be sprats to gobble the gnats so that the sprats may nourish the rats, making them fat, fine food for the cats," and so on, ending with, "And it was good! Yeah! It was goddamn good!"

An even squirmier moment came at the end of the first Kennedy Center performance, when the children's choir marched down into the audience, pressed the hands of a few startled celebrities on the aisles and urged them to pass on what the score calls "the touch of peace" to the people seated next to them. (A very Lenny moment, that, but fortunately, perhaps, a tradition of "Mass" that never caught on.)

The most familiar objection leveled at "Mass" these days is that it has dated badly, trapped in the quaint radical-chic, flower-child age that spawned it: not an especially helpful criticism. Is Verdi's "Trovatore" dated by its improbable libretto? Handel's operas, now seen everywhere, were considered hopelessly passé not so long ago, their formal Baroque conventions impossible for a contemporary audience to take seriously. Whatever period trappings may cling to "Mass," the themes it explores are timeless: the crisis of faith, the dangerous self-destructive urges that threaten every society and, above all, the passionate yearning for peace that was always central to Bernstein's thinking.

Perhaps "Mass" would not be worth bothering with if its musical content were negligible, but beneath the original dramatic conception, the creative exuberance, the showbiz glitter and the ear-catching set numbers is a sophisticated, carefully controlled piece of musical craftsmanship that repays close scrutiny. Take the omnipresent ascending fourths, first heard when the Celebrant enters to sing his gentle "Simple Song." Those paired intervals are ingeniously developed as a unifying motto throughout the piece, most strikingly in the defiance-of-God Credo section, a sequence of rock songs that cunningly grows out of a recurring rondolike serial theme. Yes, Bernstein could manipulate a 12-tone row with the best of them.

"Mass" is crammed with similar touches calculated to delight musical analysts. And although many musical passages may sound oddly familiar, Bernstein has completely absorbed them and made them his own. The final communion is just one such moment, an apotheosis that sounds as if it were lifted straight from one of Aaron Copland's warmest musical evocations of the American prairie. Perhaps it is an actual quotation, but if so, I am still looking for the source. According to a reliable friend of both composers, when this music arrived during the premiere performance, Bernstein, sitting in a box seat next to Copland, leaned over and whispered, "That's you, baby."

Not the least perplexing aspect of "Mass," for those who insist on placing music into neat categories, is what to call it. Obviously it is not a liturgical concert piece with added secular elements, like Britten's "War Requiem." Nor is it useful to label "Mass," as some do, a Broadway musical.

Why not go all the way and think of "Mass" as an opera? Bernstein might have done so, but he undoubtedly knew he would get more grief from the musical pundits if he had used the term, so he simply settled for "theater piece."

By whatever name, this extravagant, exuberant and endlessly inventive creation definitely thrives best on the stage, where Bernstein knew it belonged. One day "Mass" will turn up there again, and in a production that will generate the same excitement, controversy, sense of discovery and wonder that it did when first encountered in 1971 at the Kennedy Center.