Critical Mass: As Leonard Bernstein’s largesse reenters the canon, its messages are a clarion call

By Kyle MacMillan

When Leonard Bernstein’s Mass was christened at the much-anticipated 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC, the 1¾-hour work faced a negative onslaught from critics. Typical were Harold Schonberg’s dismissive comments in the New York Times: “It is a pseudo-serious effort at rethinking the Mass that basically is, I think, cheap and vulgar. It is a show-biz Mass, the work of a musician who desperately wants to be with it.” 

But in the nearly five decades since the piece’s premiere, the classical music world has become much more accustomed to the kind of stylistic cross-pollination that runs through Mass, and views have significantly changed about Bernstein the composer. Since his death in 1990, many of his works that had been downplayed or set aside have found renewed attention and respect. Indeed, virtually everything he wrote is being heard this year among hundreds (if not thousands) of concerts worldwide celebrating the 100th anniversary of his birth.

This transformation of perceptions has been especially pronounced when it comes to Mass, which will be the centerpiece of the more than a dozen concerts paying tribute to Bernstein the conductor, composer, educator, and social activist that course through the present summer season at Ravinia. When Welz Kauffman, the president and CEO of Ravinia, engaged internationally recognized conductor Marin Alsop to be the festival’s first-ever artistic curator for the series of events about five years ago, they immediately agreed that Mass should be the key item of this first of the multiyear celebration. Alsop calls it nothing less than one of the most important works of the 20th century.

“Bernstein was the greatest storyteller ever,” says Alsop, now 61, one of Bernstein’s last protégés and his only female one. “Everybody loved it when he would start a story. It was fantastic. 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.”

This rare performance of Mass—the first by either Ravinia or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—will take place July 28, with the Alsop leading 275 singers and musicians, including the 100-voice adult choir Vocality, an onstage children’s chorus of 40 from Chicago Children’s Choir (another 50 sing from the wings), and 50 members of the Highland Park High School Marching Band, along with a cast of two dozen as the Street Chorus and Altar Children plus baritone Paulo Szot in the central role of the Celebrant. “The biggest challenge is just harnessing all those forces,” says director Kevin Newbury. “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 just four 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 Baltimore, as well as at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, and recorded it for the Naxos label. In addition, he did another version with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2015. 

 As president John F. Kennedy (far right) advanced plans for a National Cultural Center in Washington, DC, which were formally begun by President Eisenhower in1958, he regularly sought collaboration with Leonard Bernstein (far left), who had begun his tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic in1958, the first American-born and trained conductor to hold that position. From Kennedy's Inauguration, where Bernstein led the National Symphony Orchestra in a fanfare he composed for the occasion, the Bernsteins were permanently on the First Couple's guest list. In November 1962, Kennedy organized "An American Pageant of the Arts" as a fundraiser for the cultural center—naturally, Bernstein was the Master of Ceremonies for the star-studded evening, which featured the US debut . of a 7-year-old cellist by the name of Yo-Yo Ma and his 11-year-old sister on the piano. After the cultural center was announced to be named after Kennedy in his memory, his widow, Jacqueline, asked Bernstein to be its music director. Unable to make the time commitment, Bernstein declined, instead accepting a commission to create a new work for its opening—the project that became Mass.

Bernstein became friends with the Kennedys during their White House years, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned him to write a major work for the inauguration of the arts center that was to be named in honor of her late first husband. The Jewish composer chose to create a daring, forward-looking variation on the Roman Catholic Mass, subtitling it A Theater Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. In keeping with his wide-ranging musical interests, he fused rock, jazz, and Broadway idioms with 12-tone serialism and a host of other sacred and secular classical traditions.

“The thing about Bernstein is that he really was the model of the artist-citizen,” Newbury says. “And he really engaged with everything that was going on in the world around him. And I think Mass is really his magnum opus about the way he saw the world.” Rooted in the socio-political tumult of the late 1960s and early ’70s, the work confronts a crisis of faith and takes audiences on a communal journey to a reimagined world of renewed peace and spirituality.

in 2008, what would have been Bernstein's 90th year, conductor and Bernstein protégée Marin Alsop (far right) teamed up with director Kevin Newbury to present a trio of performances of Mass with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on its home stage, where they also made a Grammy-nominated recording of the work, as well as at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall (pictured).

“I think it was his Mahler Eight in a way,” Alsop says, referring to Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, the so-called “Symphony of a Thousand,” a vocal and orchestral hybrid that extols the eternal human spirit. “It was his outreach. It was work about inclusion, about embracing [others]. It was also a very American experience for him, because he was close with Kennedy. He was close with Jackie Kennedy. And the loss of Kennedy, the loss of MLK [Martin Luther King Jr.], the loss of Bobby Kennedy—these things really affected Bernstein very deeply, and this is a piece that pays tribute to JFK.”

But because of the negative reactions to the piece, Mass was essentially shelved—a huge blow to Bernstein and the musical and socio-political ambitions he had invested in it. “It was like something you weren’t supposed to talk about, like a family secret,” Alsop recalls of her years around the composer. “And I could tell he really suffered about this piece.”

To celebrate the culmination of her seven-year tenure at the Eugene (OR) Symphony in 1996, the leaders of the orchestra said she could perform any work she wanted, and there was no doubt as to what she wanted to do: Bernstein’s virtually forgotten Mass. At the time, she recalls, there was not even any readily available edition from the publisher. Since then, she has conducted it nearly a dozen additional times across the world, becoming one of the work’s best-known champions.

And her efforts, along with those of other conductors like Kent Nagano, another Bernstein protégé, who recorded the piece in 2004, have helped changed perceptions of the piece. Nearly three decades after the composer’s death, Alsop says, people are finally able to separate the composer’s music from his bigger-than-life persona. In addition, musical boundaries have become more porous, and audiences in the 21st century are used to works that cross genres and combine multiple styles as Mass does. “To have a rock band in the middle of an orchestra is not that foreign to us today,” she says, “but in 1971, it seemed absurd to people.” 


One of the chief challenges in mounting any performance of Mass is finding a singer who can meet the daunting musical and theatrical demands of the Celebrant, its main soloist. Baritone Alan Titus made his name with his debut in the role in 1971. “We have Paulo Szot, who is just a marvel,” Newbury says. “He is going to be amazing. There are very few people who can get through it. You read a lot of stories of people dropping out right before it starts or getting replaced, because it’s a real tour de force.” 

When Kauffman and Alsop put their minds together about the performance five years ago, just as quickly as they decided to present Mass in the first place, they agreed that Szot, a Tony Award–winning Brazilian singer who has excelled both in opera and on Broadway, would be Ravinia’s Celebrant. “I knew the piece from years ago when I first listened to a recording, and I was amazed by it,” Szot says. “So when Marin wrote me an email and asked, ‘Hey, do you want to do this piece?’ I said, ‘Absolutely, yes.’ ” The two had worked together previously on another Bernstein work, and he was sure there was no better conductor to introduce him to Mass. Subsequently, when Alsop was engaged to lead a performance of the work at London’s Southbank Centre in April of this year, she brought Szot into the fold to give him another chance to don the Celebrant’s vestments.

Szot, who will be making his Ravinia and CSO debuts, was attracted to the diverse musical styles found in the work and Bernstein’s willingness to rethink how the baritone voice is typically treated. Mass includes an extended section that calls on Szot to sing a cappella and falsetto, something he had never done before. “So, I was absolutely fascinated from the beginning until the day we opened in London,” the baritone says. “And I can’t wait to do it again.”

Because of the massive scale of Mass, learning, rehearsing, and performing it becomes a journey in itself—what Alsop calls a “secondary metaphor” for the message of the piece. The trepidation and anxiety at the beginning are ultimately replaced with feelings of accomplishment and fulfillment. “I know what the pay-off can be,” Alsop says. “For people who haven’t gone through this journey, they don’t actually yet know what an incredible experience it will be for the audience and for themselves. I don’t have the fear anymore. I just have the knowledge of the enjoyment of the process.”

The work brings out the best in the artists working on it, Newbury says, because virtually all of them have experienced a crisis of faith or a lost connection with community and can share in its message. And that common bond and the empathy it generates communicate powerfully to the audience. “More than any other piece that I’ve done,” he says, “and I’m not being hyperbolic, it really feels like the audience and the performers are in the same space and the same world, and there is no real dividing line between who’s listening and who’s performing.”

The world has changed a great deal since 1971, when Mass premiered, yet the United States faces many similar challenges, including intense 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,” Alsop says, “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.

“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.” ▪

Kyle MacMillan served as classical music critic for the Denver Post from 2000 through 2011. He currently freelances in Chicago, writing for such publications and websites as the Chicago Sun-Times, Wall Street Journal, Opera News, and Classical Voice of North America.