Leonard Bernstein at 100
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Dinner at the Divinity School
A group of students at Harvard Divinity School invited Leonard Bernstein, when he was on campus for the Norton lectures, to join us for dinner in the refectory at Rockefeller Hall on Francis Avenue. Was it in 1973? I'm trying to get the date. Of course, great teacher that he was, Bernstein accepted the invitation. He had written Mass, which was ostensibly the reason for inviting him to HDS. I was one of the students, but since I had not heard Mass, I sat at the far end of the table so my musical ignorance wouldn't be so obvious. What I know: the initial proposal to invite him came up over a group dinner, from student Jon Alexander (who sadly died earlier this year in 2023) and John Ferris, University Organist and Choir Master, and lecturer at HDS, organized it, and student Gail Shulman remembers it well. I'm interested to fill out more about that one evening, just one occasion for Bernstein when he enthusiastically engaged with students. I don't think anyone took pictures.
Diane M. Miller, Salina, KS, United States
A beautiful meeting in Copenhagen in 1965
In 1965, when I was 25, I travelled by myself for about 7 months in Europe. Before I left, I visited my parents in Oklahoma City. They were friends with the Oklahoma Governor who gave me a card with my name (Jan Bernstein) and the Oklahoma seal. Nothing official, but it looked fairly important....just in case I needed it. While I was in Copenhagen for a few weeks, I noticed that Leonard Bernstein was performing there. I don't remember how I found out where he was staying, but I vividly remember showing the card to someone at the hotel check-in desk and asking if he could check if my "Uncle Leonard" was in his room. Since I was rather shy growing up, I still laugh at my new found boldness. A few minutes later I am sitting in the lobby with Leonard Bernstein, who could not have been dearer. The first thing I did was apologize for the "trick", but it did help that he knew my aunt Helen Richards who worked on Broadway shows for many years. We visited for at least 45 minutes. As the movie brought out----he loved people!
My parents had a dress shop in Oklahoma City. My father's name Jerome was printed many times in ads, etc. One year there was a story about the Oklahoma City Symphony--stating that the next year they were going to feature "Jerome Bernstein's" symphonies. :-) Obviously, the type setter was very familiar with daddy, and not Leonard. There were only 6 Bernstein families in the state of Oklahoma, so I used to tear out pages of a New York phone book to show my growing up friends all of the Bernsteins in NY.
Jan Bernstein Riven, Nashville, TN, United States
When MASS came out, I was a college freshman who really knew nothing about the overall content, but loved Leonard Bernstein. Growing up watching his Young Peoples Concerts with my mom and loving "West Side Story," I anticipated it would be good. So, I bought the album and from the moment I put the needle down, listened to it over and over, letting it soak into my soul. Having been raised singing in church and school choirs, it was unlike anything I had ever heard, but I knew it was something significant. As I look back now, I'm sure that at that age I was just beginning to start on a journey, trying to discover who I was and where I was going. I would consider MASS a catalyst to plant seeds in my soul that I didn't realize were there until many years later. It brought healing during a time when the world had experienced the turbulent 60's. Now that MASS is turning 50, I would hope it might be something that would help us heal from the turbulent recent years. Thank you for this marvelous work that has meant so much to me.
Barb Boyd, Lansing, MI
So Many Mass Memories
Tickets to the original production of Mass in NYC were my sweet sixteen birthday present. I can't say this Jewish girl really knew what was happening on that stage, but I knew I wanted to be up there on that stage. Skip to 10 years later for the 10th Anniversary production at the Kennedy Center. The cast was already in production when they decided they needed another soprano. My friend was in the show and got me an audition. Tom O'Horgan, the director, was known for being a maverick, so my friend encouraged me to audition with my very funny irreverent belting song (very far from soprano notes and quite a risk). After the laughter ended, I did another 36 bars of a soprano song with really high notes. They told me right there at the audition that I had the part. It was my first year in show business and the beginning of my relationship with colleagues (Lenny, John Mauceri) and friends (Jamie Bernstein) that have been long lasting.
Louise Edeiken, NYC
I was Gordon Davidson's assistant. Neither Celebrant could be located - David Cryer was stuck on a train somewhere between New York and Philadelphia, and Alan Titus was...well somewhere in Philadelphia. (Way before cell phones...). Performance time was fast approaching, and Michael Hume, who had been in the choir since the first performance and had taken it upon himself to learn the role, said, "I could do it." Left with no other choice, in a true Ruby Keeler moment, local producer Moe Septee stepped in front of the curtain and announced the debut of a fine young performer. Of course he didn't mention that there hadn't been any rehearsal. Michael got through just fine - I remember watching the Alvin Ailey dancers pulling him through the dances. The funny thing was that the beginning of "A Simple Song" took place in front of the curtain, and David realized he only knew where the Celebrant was standing when the curtain went up. He had no idea what the staging was up until that moment. So he improvised. It was one of those evenings to remember!
Ted Chapin, Connecticut...now
MASS still resonates after half-century
I first saw MASS at Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1972 in its original production starring Alan Titus as the Celebrant and conducted by Maurice Peress. And although I was familiar with the score from the album, the production acquired even greater depth in live performance. Since then I have seen it twice at the Kennedy Center (under John Mauceri in 1981 and the Baltimore Symphony under Marin Alsop about seventeen years later), at Carnegie Hall with the late Robert Bass and The Collegiate Chorale in 2002, and at Philly's Kimmel Center with Yannick Nezet-Seguin (who was born four years after the 1971 premiere of MASS) and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2015, and all of these have been exceptional. However, I experienced a particularly memorable one at Penn State University's Eisenhower Auditorium in 2013, although I do not remember the conductor or who portrayed the Celebrant. For me, MASS remains Bernstein's most eclectic and monumental opus.
Robert J. Robbins, Media, PA
I was driving and listening to NPR the first time I heard a portion of Bernstein's MASS. I muttered to myself, "What the hell is this?"
I don't remember exactly when I first heard MASS in its entirety, but it started to grow on me. It has been in my "top 5" for a long time now. The only time I saw it live was at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. My best friend (an avid Bernstein fan himself) and I drove 6 hours to attend, and it was worth every bit of effort. The performance was superb, and I learned even more about this amazing work.
Every time I revisit parts of the score I find something new. ("I never noticed that.") And now that I am back in school I plan to write my thesis on Bernstein's work, especially MASS.
There are so many ways MASS has changed my life, but I don't want to make this message too long. :~)
James Poteat, Acworth, GA
Trip to listen and see Maestro Bernstein in Hungary, and after an incredible concert he gave me this autograph.
Óscar Lobete, Spain
During rehearsals in Manhattan of the 1972 summer touring production of "MASS", Maestro Bernstein ribbed Alvin Ailey about how much the choreography he made for "MASS" reminded him of passages of movement in "Revelations". Alvin did likewise. He pointed passages of music in "MASS" that sounded to him like passages from "West Side Story".
Clover Mathis, San Francisco, CA, United States
First performances of Mass at Lincoln Center
All I can say is I was blown away by the radical mix of musical styles. Visually and audially, it can still appear vividly in my head.
Anne Chalmers, Newton, MA, United States
How Bernstein's "Mass" changed my life. Yale production New Haven, Ct. & Vienna 1972/1973
In 1972 and 1973 I was a member of the "Street Chorus" in the Yale productions of Bernstein's "Mass" in New Haven, CT, Vienna, Austria and Public Television"s "Great Performances". I was a member of the New Haven community at the time and auditioned my way into the production. "Mass" changed my life and has shaped it ever since. As a result of the "Mass" experience, I have gone on to have a wonderful life as a Choral Music Educator. Working with a friend I am going to produce a video chronicling that experience and its life altering impact. I know there are many others who were in this production who had their lives impacted also. It is my hope that I represent them and the power of Leonard Bernstein's life-work well. Wish me luck!!!
Michael P. Adam-Kearns, Eastford, CT, United States
Opening night of Mass at Mark Taper Forum
My parents with Leonard Bernstein on opening night of the LA premier of Mass. My father directed the boys choir in the production, who were selected from the St. Luke’s Choristers in Long Beach.
Laura Fenn, Los Angeles, CA, United States
Fortunate to see 3 times!
My first experience with MASS was at a concert at (the old, pre renovated) Northrup Auditorium on Presidents Day presented for the University of Minnesota's President at the time. It was fully realized with set pieces, the U of M marching band, orchestra and soloists. That performance still gives me chills just remembering it.
The second performance was with the MN Orchestra, Eiji Oue conducting, at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. This time I was in the first few rows, center of the orchestra section. It was an overwhelming performance also with many moments indelible in my mind.
The third performance was a televised one from Ravinia, Chicago, with Marin Alsop conducting. Even on the 55 inch TV screen, it was a visceral experience. Marin Alsop is a genius with this piece.
I have been very lucky to be able to see/hear this masterpiece as many times as I have, and hope to see it again soon.
Douglas Myhra, St. Paul, MN
MASS: An ongoing celebration
Where to begin? My journey with MASS began with my left foot. Literally. Standing on one foot, eyes closed and arms outstretched. Gently wobbling, along with the winnowed few remaining at the end of the final callback, as the famed stage director, Tom O'Horgan, did the math. He'd flown to Bloomington only to realize Indiana University could not provide enough student talent to fully cast the upcoming 10th Anniversary production at The Kennedy Center in 1982. A swing. And a miss. Skip ahead to 1987. Bernstein again asked for a cast to be produced by Indiana University. This time, it was for the composer's 70th Birthday gala celebration at Tanglewood. I was long gone from IU. Currently, enduring experimental British musical theatre at the Banff Centre in Alberta. I had just signed on for another session when a message reached me. It was from a classmate, a choral conducting major still studying at IU. His message was simple: "Bernstein wants IU to produce MASS for his birthday party next summer. There's no one who they think can sing the role of the celebrant. The auditions are in three weeks. How fast can you get here?"
As it turns out, The Banff Centre had been slated for the Canadian premiere of MASS. The production never happened. But the library did have a score and a record. An hour later, I was in the basement of the Banff Centre library, seated at a listening station, looking at the cover photo of Alan Titus. As I paged through the score, following the recording, I felt an immediate and visceral quickening. With each page, I felt the aligning of my training, my talent and...my temperament. Then, the score rolled on into the, 'fraction'. I felt every twist and turn in the character's agony. I knew this guy. And I had every intention of portraying him.
As I stood up from the library carrel, I felt as though I had walked into a men's clothing shop, reached for a suit off the rack and put it on. And if fit, perfectly. So, yes. I was there for Tanglewood. And it started it all for me.
Twenty-five productions later, I am still in awe of the work. I've been privileged to lead the casts in Rome, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Spain, Carnegie Hall, Dallas, Denver, Columbus, California, and Oregon. And the most recent, for UNC School of the Arts. Each cast, crew, and orchestra has been equally inspired and enriched by the experience. And every producer, exhausted and well-satisfied for the effort.
As celebrant, director, casting director, or producer, it's all been a continual rediscovery. It's the most imperfectly perfect musical drama of my career's worth of drama. And it works. The secret, of course, is this: The audience is only along for the ride. The truest experience of Leonard Bernstein's MASS is to play, sing and dance it. And for a few of us, making a career of it.
Douglas Webster, Portland, Oregon
Memories of The Bernstein MASS
Memories of The Bernstein MASS, by Morris Antonelli, husband of the late Amy Antonelli
I am writing memories on behalf of my late wife Amy Solit Antonelli who was an original cast member in the chorus of Bernstein's MASS for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. A little background-- Amy was a huge fan of Leonard Bernstein as a young teenager in Brooklyn, New York. As a piano student she loved the Saturday morning music presentations by Bernstein. As a teen she wrote him a fan letter. Fast forward to 1962, we were married and living in Austin, Texas where Amy was a student at University of Texas pursuing a Masters in Music Education. A letter came from the publisher with a check in the amount of one or two dollars asking for permission for her teenage letter to be included in a book written by Mr. Bernstein’s sister, Shirley Anne Bernstein. Of course, permission granted. (She didn't cash the check.)
Later, Amy successfully auditioned for the Alto section of the MASS choir that was being put together by Norman Scribner. After the first rehearsal with Lenny (everyone referred to him that way), Amy introduced herself to Mr. Bernstein and related this background. They became fast friends and Bernstein would always have a warm greeting for Amy. After a Friday night performance the chorus was planning a party at the home of Tom Schwab, a choral member when not practicing law. Amy was asked to invite Lenny to the party as it was assumed they had a special rapport. Lenny accepted and asked Amy to pick him up at his Watergate suite where he was hosting some post-performance guests. Amy was invited to the suite where she met one of the Berrigan brothers and Sister Elizabeth McAllister and other anti-Vietnam war activists. Then, Amy, Bernstein, conductor Maurice Peress, stage manager Tom Larson, and another piled into our family station wagon and Amy's brother drove them to a very memorable after-concert party. I was already there and can report all, including Bernstein, were in rare form. Lenny played four-handed piano duets with Norman Scribner. The atmosphere was euphoric, as it was following all MASS performances. Although there was plenty of food at the party, after leaving, with me now driving, Lenny asked to stop for something to eat. It was late and Washington was closing down. We were also transporting another member of the chorus, who was a college student and worked part time at Blimpies in Georgetown. He said Blimpies would be closed but would open for him. As we approached the door, a guitar player was leaning against the building and when he saw Bernstein he immediately commenced playing Bach. Blimpies pulled out all the stops serving after hours food and beer from their private stash. Lenny regaled us with stories of auditioning Alan Titus, the MASS Celebrant, and other MASS-related stories while conducting the 1812 Overture which came from the jukebox. Amy, of course, did the Washington run of MASS and the return a year later. She also did a week in Philadelphia but did not sign on for NYC Lincoln Center as she had young children at home. We did go to New York and she, as prearranged, went to the stage door entrance. Tom Larson told Amy he had a choral robe for her and she was to do a Lincoln Center performance, which was a MASS high for her.
Amy enjoyed numerous lasting friendships from the original MASS cast. They included Kenny Pearl and Hector Mercado from the Ailey Company, who did parts of "Revelations" in our living room, lead soloist and actor David Cryer, numerous members of the choir, and of course, Leonard Bernstein.
In 1984, Bernstein was to conduct Mahler Symphony #2 at the National Cathedral in D.C. as a fundraiser for Musicians Against Nuclear Arms. Amy was asked to be the piano accompanist for the soloist rehearsal with Jessye Norman and Barbara Hendricks. Bernstein introduced them to Amy and asked, “Amy, how many years have we been working together?” CBS television was there to film the rehearsal for an upcoming Sunday morning feature on Bernstein. There was Bernstein conducting behind Amy at the piano which all appeared on the Charles Kuralt feature. This same video was also used for a Jessye Norman Sunday CBS feature. After the rehearsal with full orchestra, chorus, and soloists, Amy was with Bernstein in the Cathedral with another former MASS singer and others, including our daughter, Erica. Upon being reintroduced, Bernstein gave her one of his big hugs and noted how much she had grown. Amy exclaimed, “you're such a nice man!" This is significant as this was also recorded by CBS and used at the end of the hour-long special following Bernstein’s death, Amy saying, “You're such a nice man.”
Erica Antonelli, Washington, DC
Becoming the Music
It was the late 1960s, and me in my late teens. I used to get free tickets to the Royal Albert Hall in London, England. I was lucky enough to see Leonard Bernstein conduct the Verdi Requiem. I had seen many people - conductors, soloists, orchestra members, choir members - respond with their bodies to the music they were playing or singing. But never before, or since, did I see someone BECOME the music. Leonard did. It exuded from him and was so wonderful to experience. That evening is so strong in my memory, decades later. That glorious sound that he drew forth from orchestras and choirs (there was more than one of each). In later years I realized that he, my favourite conductor, was immersed in Mahler, my favourite composer. And so I have listened to so many recordings of him conducting Mahler.
Sylvia Lee, Saskatchewan, Canada
When I was in High School I saw a production of “Mass” at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis. It was produced by Butler University.
I was with my voice teacher at the times, who by the way, became a Priest. It was beautiful! The” Dona Nobis“ at it’s zenith, with all of those instruments and voices literally took my breath away. I have sung selections from the MASS my entire life! Even in my 60s!
Mark Owens, Indianapolis, IN, United States
Seeing West Side Story film in Sydney, Australia, in 1961
I was stunned by the beauty and originality of the music score and the wonderful dance ensemble with Russ Tamblyn's amazing ability as the leader of the Jets.
Max R. Harris, Perth, WA, Australia
Leonard Bernstein: A Personal Experience
In the fall of 1985, this writer attended Leonard Bernstein's concert in Carnegie Hall with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra performing Mahler's Ninth Symphony. When I discovered the concert in the New York Times, I jumped at the chance to hear the most dynamic of conductors. I had no I-phone, no PC, no GPS, during this time I was an employee of the Colonnade Hotel in Boston. Using my first credit card ever, I called the Carnegie Hall box office from a payphone on the fifth floor of the hotel to order the tickets, which were held for me. Driving down from Boston and then finding someplace to park my car, (a dilapidated 1976 Datsun with a hole underneath the clutch; one could see the street), and finding a hotel to sleep was very exciting for me.
I parked the car across the street from Carnegie Hall risking of being towed. I galloped into the Carnegie Hall box office akin to a thoroughbred racing the Kentucky Derby, received my ticket, and raced back to my car. After finding my hotel I rode the New York City subway without incident to the concert hall. I finally made it to Carnegie Hall and I did not have to practice. I sat up in the nosebleed seats.
When Lenny came on I noticed how sprite he was for his age. He paused a moment and then started the symphony in the lower strings and muted horn. The third movement was very exciting, the movement is in rondo form and Lenny conducted it in breakneck tempo.
All I remember is how slowly the final movement went. The concertmaster of the Israel Philharmonic was on one knee for more expression. I mean this was one of the most powerful musical experiences I have ever heard. Also was amazed by the musician's concentration playing the final dying notes.
Robert Phelan , Boston, MA
Bernstein Conducts Copland at Avery Fisher Hall
It was October, 1989. I attended a New York Philharmonic concert, conducted by Maestro Bernstein. It was an all Copland concert: Music For The Theatre, Clarinet Concerto (with Stanley Drucker, Soloist), Connotations for Orchestra, and closing with El Salon Mexico. I recall at the end of El Salon Mexico, and the end of the concert, Maestro Bernstein graciously accepted thunderous applause by doing a pushup on the gold bars of the podum. After the concert, I met Mr. Drucker who graciously signed my playbill. I was then told that Bernsten never met people in the Green Room at what is now David Geffen Hall, at Lincoln Center. So, I was shown to his dressing room, where he was greeting some of his students. I stood on line, thinking "What do I say to him that he hasn't heard before?" So, the moment of truth: I greeted him, and asked, "What happened to Music For The Movies" (which was originally scheduled as part of the concert)? As he signed my playbill (which I still have) he commented, "It went the way of all flesh. It was a time factor issue." How wonderful to have met one of my idols. Even though I had a cold that evening, it is still a wonderful memory!
Philip Harwood, Franklin Square, NY
Memories of Mass
I negotiated with Bernstein to present the UK premiere of MASS while in my final year of High School. This was not successful as the rights had already been granted elsewhere, though I was eventually granted the performing rights to the LA Chamber music version (which we planned to present in Guildford Cathedral and a theatre in Oxford, to be recorded by CBS - unfortunately plans fell through in the end).
When I started at University of Warwick that Fall, I discovered they were presenting the UK and London premieres of MASS - that's who the rights had been granted to!
I joined the University choir and took part in those performances at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry and the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Nicholas Goldwyn, UK
Former Yale Students remember MASS
As the decades go by, another aspect of MASS has become clear to me: the effect MASS has on the people who perform it. This residual radiance has been noted by both professionals and amateurs alike. I reached out to some of the students who were in MASS—when they were teenagers and Leonard Bernstein came to Yale, and then, the following year, in Vienna—to see what came to mind, forty-eight years later. Here are some excerpts of what they wrote:
Performing in Leonard Bernstein's MASS in 1973 remains one of the most exciting experiences of my life. While singing and dancing on a stage pulsating with talented Yalies, I forgot that I was a Ph.D. student in English. I became part of something grand, electric, and meaningful—both at Yale and in Vienna that summer. Bernstein's glorious music is etched in my memory.
- Annette Insdorf, Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, and moderator of the 92nd-Street Y’s “Reel Pieces” series.
MASS was a "life event," one that has stayed with me for the past five decades. In Vienna, at the European premiere, I recall Leonard Bernstein walking into a room full of people; it was as if time stood still as I watched this man of enormous energy, presence, and verve command the room with a certain humility or deference (perhaps odd descriptors for LB!) to those who had performed. He didn't need to talk about himself—he talked about us! I have always used that example in talking with medical students and residents in showing deference, respect, and humility—and the example has served me well. Funny how music and medicine, two truly international, collaborative efforts, can serve to unite rather than divide. May we use them both now, more than ever, in this tumultuous world!
- Robert Perkel, MD, former member of the clarinet section, Professor of Medicine (Family Practice) Thomas Jefferson University Hospital
We were treated like sports stars in Vienna. Greg Hemphill (second violin) and I were walking out of Demel's Pastries and wanted to get tram tickets so we could visit the Central Cemetery and stand at the grave of Beethoven. We went up to one of the tabac kiosks while wearing the "team" T-shirts designed by Chris Pullman. We walked up to the stand and immediately the man behind the counter began talking all about the upcoming performances of Mass. Fortunately, Greg was fluent in German. We couldn't believe that the average "man on the street" was aware of who we were and what we were doing there. Most of all, I remember being overwhelmed by the size of the audience, including those who had bought standing room tickets. The memories are so vivid, it’s hard to believe this occurred fifty years ago.
- Daniel B. Feller, MD Emeritus Ophthalmology (former principal cellist).
MASS has two organ parts, a large "church organ" that plays with the orchestra and stage choir, and a small organ that plays with the rock band on stage. They were known as Big Al and Little Al, respectively, because at the premiere at the Kennedy Center, they were both Allen electronic organs. Little Al should be electronic, but I believe I was the first organist ever to play the Big Al part on a pipe organ. And what a pipe organ! The organ in Woolsey Hall, known as the Mighty Newberry, can shake the floor and the rafters, and I did so at a few points in the piece.
- James Meehan, staff software engineer, Google (retired)
I was the rehearsal pianist in New Haven before we traveled to Vienna. Most of that time was spent with the street chorus as they learned (or re-learned) not only the music, but the choreography and direction. I knew pretty much every note of the piece. After we traveled to Vienna, the rehearsals involved the entire symphony orchestra—and at that point I became one of two electric piano players involved in only 20% or so of the score.
Years later, in 1991, a musician friend called me out of the blue and said that a friend of his was selling “these incredible high-end pianos” and I should check it out. I did—and learned that he was the Bösendorfer dealer in New York. When the dealer saw the two pianos I had selected, he pointed to the metal at the low end of the larger instrument, where there appeared to be some script in black magic marker. He explained that when he was in Vienna selecting instruments, he was with Lenny, and Lenny had signed a few pianos he found to be special. I was thrilled and felt the connection back to our experience doing Mass. In the end, I purchased a 7’4” piano and always feel the connection to Lenny, who of course had a Bösendorfer in his apartment here in New York.
- Geoffrey D. Menin, Counsel: Levine, Plotkin, and Menin LL
Photo by Bob Raiselis, courtesy of the Yale University Archives.
John Mauceri, New Haven, CT
Behind the Scenes: UVA's "MASS"
(as printed in UVA Today, October 15, 2018)
Story By: Caroline Newman
Photo By: Sanjay Suchak
Vocalists, musicians, dancers and singers from the University of Virginia, Charlottesville and beyond raised their voices together for a powerful performance over the weekend.
More than 150 performers, including UVA’s University Singers and a local youth choir, DMR Youth Chorus, took the stage in downtown Charlottesville’s historic Paramount Theater to perform American composer Leonard Bernstein’s “Mass.” It was one of the largest performances UVA’s McIntire Department of Music has ever produced.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind piece,” said conductor Michael Slon, UVA’s director of choral music. “I have seen firsthand the transformative power it can have for both performers and audiences.”
The performance was directed by UVA drama professor emeritus Robert Chapel, with set design by drama associate professor Tom Bloom. It was part of national and international centennial celebrations for Bernstein, one of the foremost American composers, who was born in 1918 and died in 1990.
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis commissioned this particular piece, “Mass,” for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on Sept. 8, 1971. The former first lady admired Bernstein after he conducted the music for Robert F. Kennedy’s funeral a few years earlier, in 1968.
Given Onassis’ commission, Bernstein created a piece to capture what he saw as a crisis of faith in the 20th century, particularly after John F. Kennedy’s assassination and ongoing debate and anguish around the Vietnam War.
“He was very much a citizen of the world, and his work frequently engaged contemporary issues through music and text,” Slon said. “This piece is a prime example of that. It is very much of its time, but there are many themes that also feel relevant today.”
Bernstein, who was the son of Russian Jewish parents and a frequent humanitarian activist, structured the piece around the traditional rhythms of a Roman Catholic mass, using a mixture of sacred and secular texts, formal choirs, “street choirs” and juxtaposing elements of blues, rock and jazz with solemn hymns.
The street choir, shown here during rehearsal last week, provided a modern counterpoint to the traditional structure of the mass and introduced doubts and questions about religion.
“Mass” divided the Roman Catholic Church when it first premiered, with some Catholics appreciating it and others being offended by it. However, in a full-circle moment a decade after Bernstein’s death in 1990, Pope John Paul II requested a performance at the Vatican in 2000.
The composition is, by turns despairing, humorous and wry, leading the audience through a crisis of faith and ultimate catharsis experienced by the “celebrant,” played by vocalist and actor Kevin Vortmann, shown here rehearsing with members of the DMR Youth Chorus.
Vortmann’s credits include both Broadway and off-Broadway productions, as well as performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony.
Vortmann was joined by a large cast drawing from many different parts of the University and the city. The University Singers, UVA’s choral ensemble directed by Slon, provided a full, formal chorus, while other students and community members had various solo parts. A “street chorus,” composed of both students and local residents, gave voice to the concerns of the day, asking Vortmann’s character how his church could explain suffering and social ills.
“The show puts forward a lot of questions, in this case about religion,” second-year UVA student Julia Guarneri said. “In the end, it is not about religion being wrong or right, but about having an understanding of religion, accepting different parts of it and recognizing that things are not always black and white.”
Guarneri, a member of University Singers who also had a solo role in the street chorus, said she enjoyed meeting and working with performers outside of UVA.
“It’s really cool because this show has so many different parts – dancing, singing, the choir, a full orchestra,” she said. “It’s been great to work with and get to know people from Charlottesville, especially since I am out-of-state, from New Jersey.”
Slon believes the piece’s collaborative focus is an important part of Bernstein’s overall intentions for it.
“This piece is so demanding, in terms of the number and types of performers required, and it opened the door to many collaborations across UVA and with our Charlottesville community,” Slon said. “By design, it draws many people together. I think that is part of Bernstein’s point, that performing together brings us together in a unified way.”
Original Article: https://news.virginia.edu/content/behind-scenes-uva-charlottesville-singers-unite-stunning-performance
Michael Slon, Virginia
Mass has always been a part of my life, with the first recording being played by my dad at home from my early years. I have been fortunate enough to hear Mass performed twice - both at the Royal Festival Hall in London, both directed by the inimitable Marin Alsop.
The first time my wife was pregnant with our first child, and the baby certainly responded to the music from the womb! The second time was with my dad, and both hold very special memories for me.
The music is moving, thought-provoking and exciting. Each hearing engages the heart, mind and soul in a profound way.
Steve Gibson, Northumberland, UK
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