For Highland Park High School Marching Band director Josh Chodoroff and members of the marching band, their participation in Ravinia’s encore performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass on Saturday, July 20, has to be the very best “This one time, at band camp” story.
Mass was mounted last season in honor of the centennial of Bernstein’s birth. This controversial and rarely performed work has gained in critical estimation since its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1971. The full staging of Mass features roughly 250 performers. Conductor and Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop is back, along with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Children’s Choir, and the ensemble Vocality, along with baritone Paulo Szot as the Celebrant, plus a “Street Chorus” and “Altar Children.” The Chicago Tribune hailed last year’s performance as “historic” and praised this production as one that speaks “urgently to a contemporary audience.”
Ravinia CEO Welz Kauffman recruited the HPHS Marching Band to join this august company. “Our hometown Highland Park High School has a dedication to the arts that is the envy of others,” Kauffman noted. “Just look at a list of its alumni for a who’s who in show business. I had already worked on another project with the band director Josh Chodoroff, and I knew he would recognize this opportunity for his students. He was present at a Ravinia season preview I gave to kids at the high school auditorium, and I sprang the question on him then and there. He did not hesitate for a moment. This partnership is just one more example of how Highland Park and Ravinia support each other intrinsically.”
“I knew my students would be up for this,” Chodoroff confirmed while taking a break from rehearsal on the eve of the performance. “I said, ‘Please put us down for a yes.’ ”
He remembers vividly how blown away he and the band were after last year’s performance. “Just the opportunity to perform with the one of the great orchestras in the world and in this world-class venue,” Chodoroff enthused, “that’s something life-changing for our students. It originally seemed almost serendipitous. At the high school last year, I did a Spring concert celebrating the 100th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth with all of the bands. One of the groups performed a suite from Mass. It was like this was meant to be. We were thrilled that Welz thought highly enough of us that we could perform at this level.”
The marching band is featured in two pivotal points in the show. “Our first job,” Chodoroff explained, “is to provide a tremendous burst of excitement and energy in the beginning of the piece so it amps up everybody’s emotions. Marching bands are associated with football games and parades and not symphony orchestras, and especially not a piece called Mass. It’s the ultimate ‘and now for something completely different.’ ” They are also featured during the powerful conclusion in a candlelight processional.
For last year’s performance, the band started rehearsing the music in the late spring at the end of the school year. Alsop came to the school the week before the performance to run through how the band would move within the Ravinia space. Being familiar with the staging and the choreography was an advantage in preparing for this season’s encore performance. “We have a better idea what we’re in for,” Chodoroff said.
Something new has been added to the 2019 production: it is being filmed for broadcast on PBS sometime in 2020. This, in turn, brought a different creative challenge for the students. “We talked about cameras from the standpoint of staying focused on our role and contributions to the piece,” Chodoroff said. “We want the band members to give the most honest and complete performance they can.”
For their part, the students are “on cloud nine,” Chodoroff said. “We went into it last year thinking it was a one-shot deal. They were thrilled to be asked again.”
Trombonist Chloe Schneider, who performed in last year’s production as a high-school senior, returns this year as an incoming freshman at Ithaca College in New York, where she will study music education. Taking a welcome break from a near 15-hour rehearsal in triple-digit heat, she said that the Mass experience goes far beyond playing the music. “Being a part of this production has allowed me to understand how professional ensembles rehearse, make connections, and be a part of a bigger community,” she said. “It’s not just about us. I’ve gained the most experience with learning non-verbal rehearsal communication. It’s fascinating to see how all the pieces come together. I am so grateful for this experience!”