In 2018, the performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra won public and critical acclaim, landing on the Chicago Tribune’s list of the 10 best concerts of that year. Music critic Howard Reich called it “simply quintessential, stylistically unbound, anything-goes Bernstein, presented on the grandest scale possible.”
The local professional premiere was such a hit that Ravinia brought the work back for an encore performance the following summer and arranged to have it taped for a national television special. Mass will be broadcast as part of PBS’ “Great Performances” series, with the Chicago airdates set for at 9 p.m. May 15 and 1 p.m. May 17 on WTTW-Channel 11.
When Bernstein’s Mass helped to christen the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the work faced a negative onslaught from critics. Typical were Harold Schonberg’s dismissive comments in the New York Times: “It is the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.”
But in the five decades since the piece’s premiere, the classical music world has become much more accustomed to the kind of stylistic cross-pollination typified by this work, and views have significantly changed about Bernstein the composer. Since his death in 1990, many of his compositions have found renewed attention and respect, with virtually everything he wrote heard in concerts worldwide celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.
This transformation of perceptions was especially pronounced when it comes to Mass, the centerpiece of more than a dozen concerts that saluted tribute to Bernstein the conductor, composer, educator and social activist over the last two summers at Ravinia. Marin Alsop, the festival’s first-ever artistic curator, calls Mass nothing less than one of the most important works of the 20th century.
“Bernstein was the greatest storyteller ever,” said Alsop, one of Bernstein’s last protégés and the outgoing music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. “Everybody loved it when he would start a story. And this [Mass] would be the ultimate story for Bernstein. This is a story with a huge moral. This is the search for truth, the search for the meaning in life.”
In 2018, Ravinia staged the work, with Alsop leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and 275 singers and musicians, including the 100-voice adult choir Vocality, an onstage chorus of 40 from Chicago Children’s Choir (with another 50 in the wings) and 50 members of the Highland Park High School Marching Band and Tony Award-winning baritone Paulo Szot in the central role of the Celebrant. The 2018 run was such a hit that Ravinia reprised the program the following summer.
“Every once in a while, you experience a live performance that connects so beautifully that you dread it being lost to the ether after that single performance — especially when it’s something so rarely performed because of the resources it requires,” said Welz Kauffman, president and CEO of Ravinia. “I just couldn’t let that happen with Mass. It took a bit of doing, but I was able to bring back all the principals who made our presentation so spectacular, and then secured the funding and the talented filmmakers who would make sure this work lived on forever, not for one night.”
The television production team was led by Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning executive producer Samuel J. Paul, producer Bernhard Fleischer and director Michael Beyer.
Ahead of the work’s local bow in 2018, director Kevin Newbury said, “The biggest challenge is just harnessing all those forces. There are so many people involved. Just the sheer scale of it is a little overwhelming the first time you do it.”
But Newbury, who made his Lyric Opera of Chicago debut six years ago, has staged the work often enough that he barely has to consult the score anymore. He and Alsop worked together on Mass in 2008, when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and a group of collaborators performed it in that city, as well as at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and recorded it for the Naxos label.
The world has changed a great deal since 1971, yet the United States faces many similar challenges, including political divisions and societal upheaval. “The message of community, of standing up for what you believe in about tolerance, about acceptance, about love, about mutual respect, all of these are very strong messages throughout Mass, and it brings together such a diverse cast of people, not just ethnically diverse but generationally diverse,” Alsop said.
“I think it is a very important message for the time we’re living in where we have to remember that tolerance is an important part of existence on this planet.”
A version of this article appeared previously on Sounds and Stories.
TOP: Paulo Szot as the Celebrant in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival. | Photo: Courtesy of Ravinia