Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

I recently attended one of the two performances of Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers at The Long Center. This musical theater work was composed by Leonard Bernstein. Peter Bay, conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, was the driving force behind this ambitious production in honor of the centenial anniversary of Bernstein’s birth.

Bernstein’s daughter, Jamie Bernstein, spoke about her father, his life, and his work before the evening’s performance. She explained that John and Jackie Kennedy were close friends of her parents. After JFK’s assassination, Jackie asked Bernstein to become the first director of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC. He initially accepted the position, but quickly decided that administration was not his passion and offered to write a commissioned piece instead. (I should also add that Jamie has just published a book, Famous Father Girl: A Memoir of Growing Up Bernstein.)

Mass was first performed at the opening of the Kennedy Center in September 1971 and generally follows the outline of the Catholic mass. Stephen Schwartz provided some lyrics, and a few songs reminded me of his religious musical, Godspell. In general, Mass seems to have aged well over the past 47 years, but perhaps that was partly due to the talented musicians, especially baritone Jubilant Sykes in the lead role as The Celebrant.

The Austin production of Mass was a wide-ranging community project. Singers included members of Conspirare, Chorus Austin, and Panoramic Voices. Children from the African Children’s Choir, Austin Children’s Choir, and Chisholm Trail Middle School Choir sang in several numbers. In addition to the Austin Symphony, Rock Band instrumentalists accompanied some songs. Members of the UT Wind Ensemble even served as the Marching Band.

Thank you to Maestro Bay and all who were involved with Mass for a memorable production!

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