The work of musician Leonard Bernstein illustrates a deep understanding of both classical music and musical theater. From West Side Story to Candide, Bernstein demonstrated his sweeping knowledge of the arts with each composition he wrote.
At 8 p.m. Sunday, July 22, in the Amphitheater, in honor of Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Jared Jacobsen and the Chautauqua Choir will present “Chichester Psalms and More: Celebrating Leonard Bernstein’s Centenary.” This Sacred Song Service includes excerpts from two of Bernstein’s most acclaimed works.
“I think Bernstein would have been tickled that in this American place, we are honoring him with these two pivotal pieces,” said Jacobsen, Chautauqua’s organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music.
Jacobsen, who first heard Bernstein’s music on the radio as a high school student, believes the musician was the ultimate “crossover character” who redefined musical theater. Though some of Bernstein’s music was not understood at the time, Jacobsen said, it has left a lasting impression on the musical community.
The first Bernstein piece the choir will perform is a portion from the Chichester Psalms, which were written in 1965 for the Rev. Walter Hussey.
“They’re very difficult because it’s Bernstein exercising his musical theater chops and also including mid-20th century dance rhythms,” Jacobsen said. “These are dance rhythms done by some of the greatest dancers in the world that Bernstein had envisioned would be doing his pieces on Broadway and in concert halls. That unusual rhythm also parallels the rhythm of the text.”
Jacobsen said the texts, originally written in Hebrew, were a welcome challenge for the choir. Though difficult to perform, they are enticing and represent the true purpose of worship music.
“Sacred music of all faiths is sort of an attempt to wrap ourselves around things we don’t understand,” he said. “Something magical happens when you put words and music together. You don’t even have to know what you’re singing about. If the music is good enough, it just takes you and it says, ‘Come with me.’ ”
Following the Chichester Psalms, Jacobsen and the choir will perform “Mass,” a large composition written in 1971 for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
“Mass” was composed after Bernstein was approached by Jacqueline Kennedy following her husband’s assassination. She requested a musical piece that both honored the former U.S. president and celebrated the arts.
“I think it’s fascinating that what she wanted, after he was assassinated, was for his memorial to be a center for performing arts, a cultural center in our nation’s capital,” Jacobsen said.
In the Catholic faith, the word “mass” represents a structured form of worship with necessary elements and, of course, a priest. Bernstein’s approach recognized this type of order, but also added a theatrical twist, Jacobsen said.
“There are certain things you would recognize from the Catholic Mass, but then around the edges, Bernstein puts his unique touch on everything,” Jacobsen said.
This composition guides the audience through a warm-up but picks up speed with a narrative about a priest slowly unraveling during a service.
“He just gets so mad at himself that he tips over the altar and hurls the Communion cup out into the audience,” Jacobsen said. “It is the most amazing piece of theater.”
Though Jacobsen first acquired a portion of “Mass” in 1971, he saw the composition live for the first time this past spring in Los Angeles. Seated near the front of the stage in the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he said the experience was an unforgettable moment, as a musician.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “Now as somebody who makes his way through life working through the church and also educating people, it was everything I am. It was Chautauqua wrapped up in a nutshell.”