Four African-American composers go to church with Bernstein’s ‘Mass’

Nolan Williams Jr. is the curator of the Philadelphia Community Mass. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Nolan Williams Jr. is the curator of the Philadelphia Community Mass. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This week, a Baptist church in West Philadelphia will host a performance of new music commissioned from  African-American composers.

The concert is the tail end of a months-long festival commemorating the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein. Most known for his musical “West Side Story,” Bernstein also composed “Mass,” a work that blended opera, Broadway, and sacred music. He was a Jewish artist using a Catholic idiom to grapple with racism, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War in 1970.

Nolan Williams Jr., CEO of NEWorks, asked four Philadelphia composers – Jay Fluellen, Ruth Naomi Floyd, Rollo Dilworth, and Evelyn Simpson — to go back to Bernstein’s “Mass” and collectively write a new version that expresses their faith or crisis of faith.

“When we say the doxology — ‘as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end’ — how can we say ‘world without end’ when very often it seems we’re at the end of the world?” said Williams. “God, do you recognize we’re at the end of the world? Do you hear the songs that we sing? Does this mean anything to you?”

The Philadelphia Community Mass on Saturday afternoon at the Monumental Baptist Church in West Philadelphia will feature a small ensemble backed by a 40-voice choir. It’s a co-production of Williams’ NEWorks and the Mann Center for the Performing Arts, with 10 commissioned works in a range of styles, from classical to jazz to various forms of sacred music.

All 10 have been shuffled into the arc of a Mass by Fluellen, who also directs the choir. Although the composers did not consult one another about what they were working on, Fluellen said the pieces in all their varied styles fit together because they come from a similar sensibility.

“Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ challenged and explored the sacred in the context of secularity,” he said. “Our concert is similar: How do you define that which is sacred in a world that is very secular?”

Floyd, a jazz singer and composer with strong Christian ties, was inspired by Bernstein to express the range of emotions she knows from worship, which can run from the deepest despair of racism to the heights of religious ecstasy.

“From breathing while black, walking while black, shopping while black, swimming while black, barbecuing while black, drinking Starbucks — or not drinking Starbucks — while black, there’s joy,” she said. “That is the profoundness of the African-American church, that you go from deepest sadness to unspeakable joy.”

The concert is free, but tickets are required. Monumental Baptist Church can hold an audience of about 300.

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