Leonard Bernstein, for me, was the greatest risk-taker in twentieth-century classical music. He thrived on conflict, and this is nowhere more evident than in his most controversial composition, Mass. I’m proud to conduct this defining work of Bernstein’s career with the Baltimore Symphony in October, celebrating the life and legacy of my friend and mentor in what would have been his 90th birthday year. Seeing him conduct when I was only nine years old at a New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concert convinced me that conducting was the only thing in the world that I wanted to do. That alone would have been enough of a gift; but when I was 31, he took me under his wing and imparted to me the heart and soul of the craft.
Mass contains the essence of Bernstein as a complex man and artist. Sure, the music is intoxicating, but beneath the showiness on the surface is a profound statement about human faith. Bernstein was a nimble composer, moving comfortably between high art and popular vernaculars and not confined by stylistic boundaries. He did this long before crossover became trendy. The work embraces a range of genres from musical theatre and opera to rock ballads and blues, with a libretto that mixes Hebrew and Latin texts.
Bernstein was commissioned to write a work memorializing the late John F. Kennedy, America’s first and only Catholic president, for the opening of the Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in 1971. He chose the structure of the Roman Catholic Mass, complete with a Celebrant playing the central role. Provocative and innovative to some, appalling to others, Mass is first and foremost a celebration of human faith, but it also questions the relevance of ceremonial rituals and immutable “truths” in an increasingly faithless modern world. Audiences leapt to their feet at the premiere, reacting to a work that felt so anti-establishment and real.
Today, 37 years after its world premiere, Mass seems even more vital and relevant. Political volatility, an unpopular war seemingly without end, and our ongoing struggle as individuals to find faith and spirituality in contemporary society—this was the backdrop for Bernstein’s portrayal of a modern-day crisis of faith. And while the music and the text may have less shock value to our contemporary ears, the message of Mass has enduring significance.
Bernstein always told me that a composer spends his entire life writing the same piece, trying to answer the same unanswerable questions. Mass was his journey in search of an answer for all of society, then and now.
Marin Alsop leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in Bernstein’s Mass on October 16-18 at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, Baltimore, Md.; October 24 at Carnegie Hall, New York City; October 25 at United Palace Theatre, New York City; and October 26 at The John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C. The Carnegie Hall and United Palace Theatre performances are part of Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds, a festival co-produced by Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic, running September 24-December 13.
Reprinted with permission from Symphony Magazine