Eastern Mennonite University's annual gala concert, a fundraiser for the music scholarship fund, will unite the university's musical ensembles on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium. (Photo of the 2014 concert by Michael Sheeler)

Annual gala concert features rare opportunity to hear ‘Concert Selections from Leonard Bernstein’s MASS’

Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS,” commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy for the 1971 dedication of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., is subtitled “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.”

Witnessing a full-length performance, as Eastern Mennonite University professor Ken J. Nafgizer did in 1981 for the center’s 10-year anniversary, is “mind-blowing.”

“The complete work requires a marching band, rock band, symphonic orchestra, two choirs, a children’s choir, and a raft of soloists,” explains Nafziger. “And as you can imagine, you can’t just do this anywhere. Oh, and a ballet. There’s also a ballet … and the Alvin Ailey dancers.”

Lacking such an expansive stage, as well as a ballet and a marching band among other necessities, Nafziger and colleagues Joan Griffing and Ryan Keebaugh are providing the next best opportunity. The works’ perennial themes of faith and doubt and the clash of tradition with modernity take center stage – albeit in an abridged version – at the university’s annual gala music concert Nov. 14, 7 p.m. in Lehman Auditorium.

Bernstein’s selections the highlight

Music lovers who regularly attend EMU’s annual gala concert, and those coming for the first time, will be delighted at this rare opportunity to hear “Concert Selections from Leonard Bernstein’s MASS” by Doreen Rao, the only sanctioned, abridged version in the history of this major work.

“MASS” features the experience of “a celebrant observing a mass who finds himself in the midst of the noisy, discordant sounds of church culture,” Nafziger says. “His intention is to strip the noise away and find out what is at the core of the mass, which raises questions of faith and nonfaith, borrows all kinds of styles of music … and when it comes to that point in the mass when the wine and the bread are consecrated, he throws the chalice onto the floor, a most grievous sin in the Catholic religion. Out of that breakdown of his own faith, he finds a need to go on anyway and returns to the idea that to praise God properly, one needs to do it simply.”

Vocal soloists include sophomore Sarah Sutter, juniors Sam Swartzendruber and Jon Bishop, and seniors Guilio Garner and Heather Evans.

A musical showcase

While the Bernstein piece will be the highlight, other works are also in the evening’s program. The annual concert brings together the Chamber Singers, men’s and women’s choirs, Emulate, Chamber Orchestra, and the Wind Ensemble.

“The annual gala concert is an opportunity for the music department to showcase most of our ensembles and the large number of students who participate in our programs,” says Griffing, who conducts the orchestra. “We welcome the community to come out and help us celebrate and support the hard work of many while enjoying a wide variety of repertoire.”

The Wind Ensemble, directed by John Dull, will perform Gustav Holst’s “Suite for Winds.” The Chamber Orchestra will perform a portion of Ernest Bloch’s “Concerto Grosso” for strings and piano. Professor James Richardson, baritone, will be featured in an aria from the Bach cantata “Ich habe henug.”

The concert is the primary fundraiser for the music scholarship fund. The suggested donation is $10 per person.