Bernstein’s “MASS” Gives Amen to Bellarmine Forum

Loyola Marymount University’s 2018–19 Bellarmine Forum ended with an exclamation point: Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers,” the American composing legend’s ambitious meditation on faith, heroism and justice. This year’s forum events and courses also paid tribute to the 50-year anniversary of the affiliation of the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and the Marymount tradition with the Jesuit and Ignatian traditions at LMU.

“Collaboration and Creativity,” the theme of this year’s forum, was in abundance in Burns Back Court on Wednesday, March 27, 2019, as nearly 100 musicians, singers, readers and dancers played out the performance before more than 450 community members, donors, guests, students, faculty and staff members who sat in rapt attention. But the evening was more than just big numbers; it included compelling performances by an array of LMU talent.

The LMU production of Bernstein’s work was conceived and produced by theatrical director Theresia de Vroom, professor of English and director of the Marymount Institute for Faith, Culture and the Arts, and musical director John Flaherty, associate director of Campus Ministry and director of liturgy for Sacred Heart Chapel.

“A great university is based on communal acts of collaboration and creativity,” said de Vroom. “It is the same with artists and musicians – each one individual needs countless others to help create and sustain meaningful, life changing work. In this spirit, John Flaherty and I had the great privilege of working together with a virtual army of others to bring Bernstein’s ‘MASS’ to LMU.”

The LMU production took the themes from the original production – consumerism, oppression of the poor, the horror of war and visions of hope and reconciliation – and placed them in a contemporary and redux version. Images and texts were presented along with the musical performance: from children trapped in contemporary war zones, to activist heroes who tried to change the world, to the redemptive quality of art, to the power of the word, to the significance of women as mediators and redeemers, to the power of collaboration as the loadstone of creativity which, sometimes, may effect change.

The evening opened with “grace,” blessings said by Allan F. Deck, S.J., rector of the Jesuit Community, Joan Treacy, R.S.H.M., provincial of the Western Province and an LMU trustee, and Imam César Dominguez, of La Asociación Latino Musulmana de América. LMU President Timothy Law Snyder, Ph.D., on guitar, and Provost Tom Poon on ukulele then accompanied the primary singer, alumnus Harrison Crenshaw ’13 as the Celebrant, on the opening song. 

Throughout the performance, the choir, which included John Sebastian, vice president for mission and ministry, Kim Harris, assistant professor of theological studies, and more than a dozen professional singers, filled the room with Bernstein’s sometimes cacophonous, sometimes playful, sometimes mournful, sometimes reverential songs.

As in the traditional Latin Mass, the readers’ selections were poignant and often led into the next song. Nobel Prize-winner Wole Soyinka read a couple of passages, as did Pulitzer Prize-winner Beth Henley. They were joined by renowned photographer Judy Dater, Dean Bryant Keith Alexander of the LMU College of Communication and Fine Arts, Associate Professor Stefan Bradley, chair of the African American Studies Department, and senior English major Alejandra Loperena Molina.

Throughout the readings and songs, the texts and lyrics were projected onto the right-hand side of the performance area: Shakespeare on “mercy seasons justice,” James Baldwin on identity, singer/songwriter Paul Simon’s contribution to “MASS” with “Half of the people are stoned and the other half are waiting for the next election/ Half of the people are drowned and the other half are swimming in the wrong direction.” And Bernstein’s own “glorious feeling of thank you.”

The connection to LMU’s mission and people was reflected in the continuous photos and images projected on the left side of the performance area. Campus scenes were interspersed with world events and images. During the in memoriam portion of the performance, photos of eminent artists and activists, such as writer John Berger, chef Anthony Bourdain, and restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, were intermingled with remembrances of LMU Professor Mary Milligan, R.S.H.M.; former President Thomas O’Malley, S.J.; former Assistant Chancellor Albert Koppes, O.Carm.; Campus Minister Peg Dolan, R.S.H.M.; environmentalist and entrepreneur David LaMonica, husband of Senior Vice President Lane Bove; among others. The images included fathers and mothers of faculty and staff members.

The Bellarmine Forum, according to its website, “is an annual celebration of the life of the mind in relation to LMU’s mission and heritage. Each year, the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts offers a series of interconnected events and undergraduate courses that engage an important question or theme.”

As “MASS” came to its conclusion, Crenshaw moved to the back of the room. His previously powerful, resonant voice softly said, “The Mass is over. Go in peace.” And the audience was left with that glorious feeling of thank you.

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