Opinion Extra

Can music heal a broken nation? USC music school tests that idea, in a big way

USC’s School of Music will present Leonard Bernstein’s MASS on March 2-4.
USC’s School of Music will present Leonard Bernstein’s MASS on March 2-4.

Can music really bring people together from across racial, political, and social lines? Does it truly have the power to create understanding among people who often won’t even listen to what others say? Could this happen even in a country as bitterly divided as ours now? Even as we argue about what constitutes sexual harassment and basic decency? Even as we burrow ever deeper into our silos of like-minded thinkers?

At the University of South Carolina’s School of Music, we believe that it can. And we are putting our beliefs into action by undertaking one of the most challenging — and important — productions that any group of musicians could perform: Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS: Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.”

“MASS” is such an extraordinary work of grandeur and poignancy, requiring such intense orchestration of a multitude of performers, that in the 45 years since its premiere, it has been produced only a handful of times by American universities. On March 2-4, we will join them.

“MASS” is recognized as one of the most remarkable examples of music’s power to inspire joy, acceptance and understanding among people of all backgrounds and beliefs. It does this by bringing to life a wide range of views on spirituality, self-reflection and personal responsibility through the musical means that only one of America’s greatest composers could envision.

The words and music of Bernstein — supplemented by texts from lyricist Stephen Schwartz — bring together actors, dancers, street singers, choirs, orchestras and rock bands to reflect on widely differing perspectives on religion and spirituality, social ills, the grand challenges of man and other aspects of humanity.

Tayloe Harding

Despite its pious-sounding title, “MASS” speaks to people of all beliefs and even those without a faith, with its profound messages of pursuing and achieving peace and unity. The pageant begins mostly like a traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, with Bernstein’s music set against Latin prose. As the production moves forward, different points of view emerge: A rock band interrupts acolytes and questions the value of confession. A street chorus and a marching band challenge other aspects of the church and piety. Another group of performers acknowledges the apathy that runs through society. Each of these vignettes is uplifting and powerful.

“MASS” has its roots in another turbulent era in our country’s history. Bernstein composed it in 1971, on commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. At the time, our country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War, race relations, environmental activism and the burgeoning equal rights amendment.

The words ‘once in a lifetime’ get used frequently, but they will likely be true for those who attend this timely, necessary and relevant production unlike anything in the music school’s 90-year history.

At the University of South Carolina School of Music, our mission is to transform lives through excellence in music. This moment of social and civil unrest presents the perfect time to engage in that mission, and the 2018 centenary of Bernstein’s birth presents the perfect opportunity for us to bring this epic stage production to life and revisit the inclusiveness and hopefulness this remarkable work inspires.

By arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes, sole agent for Leonard Bernstein Music Publishing Co., the USC School of Music will perform the epic “MASS” of Leonard Bernstein at the Koger Center for the Arts March 2-4, thus contributing to the vibrancy of our state, staying true to the most vital part of our mission to transform lives through excellence in music, and actualizing our vision as a model public music school.

The words “once in a lifetime” get used frequently, but on that weekend in March they will likely be true for the 6,000 of us who attend one of the performances of this timely, necessary and relevant production unlike anything in the music school’s 90-year history. USC’s opera, symphony orchestra, jazz ensemble and choirs will all be part of performance, with assistance from the university’s theater and dance department to make this eclectic theatrical event possible.

“MASS” reminds us all of music’s potency to motivate hopefulness and create a desire for achieving brotherhood among people of diverse backgrounds, beliefs, cultures and populations. My hope is that people will come together to witness this remarkable musical performance and take to heart Bernstein’s message of unity and understanding, but especially take into consideration the final words of “MASS” and truly “go in peace.”

Dr. Harding is dean of USC’s School of Music; contact him at tharding@mozart.sc.edu.