March 14, 2003



Ties to the Past: MASS and Catholic University

Connections and Scholarly Expertise Make CUA a Special Venue for Bernstein Musical


In her office at The Catholic University of America, Amy Antonelli, assistant dean of the music school, has a dark blue scrapbook that holds her backstage pass for the 1971 premier of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS, along with programs and newspaper clippings that stir fond memories of a historic event in theater history.


Antonelli, a Latin chorus alto in the production almost 32 years ago at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., is one of several CUA music school faculty members with artistic links to Bernstein’s groundbreaking theater piece about the struggle between faith and hypocrisy.


With that musical heritage and a distinguished faculty whose expertise addresses the turbulent times that were a backdrop for the piece, the university, “is, in many ways, the perfect venue for Bernstein's MASS, says Murry Sidlin, dean of the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music.


The CUA production, which will be staged April 5 and 6, also brings together for the fourth time the creative talents of Sidlin, who will conduct the piece, and Douglas Webster, the foremost portrayer of the Celebrant who performed the role three years ago at the Vatican.


“With our music school faculty connections to the piece and the university’s scholars in music and all areas of the humanities — history, politics, religion — CUA is uniquely positioned to stage MASS and to host the intellectual debate sparked by Bernstein's thought-provoking work,” says Sidlin, resident conductor of the Oregon Symphony before taking over as dean of the music school last year.


Prior to its production of MASS, the university will sponsor a weeklong series of symposia, featuring discussions led by CUA faculty members and other experts about the social, religious and political issues that shaped the 1960s.


“The symposia stretching over the week prior to the performances define the relationship of scholarship to enlightened performing and provide our students with a forum to consider issues of faith and spirituality that are addressed in MASS,” Sidlin says.


The CUA production, which will showcase the talents of nearly 300 CUA students and 12 faculty members, will celebrate the April 4 opening of CUA’s new Edward J. Pryzbyla University Center.


Sidlin, also an arranger, teacher and arts philosopher, has conducted productions of MASS starring Webster at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado, with the Oregon Symphony in Portland and at the Vilnius Festival in Lithuania. The music school dean is also scheduled to conduct Bernstein's MASS with Webster as the celebrant at performances in Lithuania, Slovenia and Germany this summer.


Webster first portrayed the celebrant at Bernstein’s 70th birthday gala in 1988 at the Tanglewood Festival in Lenox, Mass. Over the past 15 years, he has recreated the role numerous times, including a performance at the Vatican for the 2000 Jubilee, the Catholic Church’s yearlong celebration marking Christ’s incarnation on earth. 


While Antonelli, of the music school faculty, sang in the 1971 production, Associate Professor Robert Newkirk performed as a musician. Newkirk was principal cellist at the time for the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, which played for the premier. Newkirk and Associate Professor Paul Taylor, who played the trumpet for the 10-year anniversary performance at the Kennedy Center in 1981, will take their places again alongside members of the CUA Orchestra at the university’s performances.


“This brings back wonderful, fond memories,” says Newkirk, who was 34 in 1971 and by then a member of the CUA music school faculty. “I really feel like I’ve come full circle.”


Bernstein’s theater piece for singers, dancers and musicians was commissioned by the Kennedy family to inaugurate the Kennedy Center. The production explores the spiritual and political crises of the late 1960s and reflects Bernstein’s own conflicts about his Jewish faith.


The CUA music school, which is shepherding the production, presents more than 200 performances annually, ranging from solo recitals to opera. It is Washington, D.C.’s only university school of music.