Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ at the oldest outdoor festival in the US

Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’ at the oldest outdoor festival in the US

Editor’s Note: “Great Performances: Bernstein Mass” premieres May 15 at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN, with streaming to follow.

Great Performances: Bernstein Mass” captures not only a great modern music-theater work by American composer Leonard Bernstein, but a summertime tradition that will be sorely missed this year: a grand-scale outdoor music event.

This acclaimed production of “Mass” was filmed in July 2019 at the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park, IL, the nation’s oldest outdoor music festival, dating to 1905. An incredible 245 performers animated the stage for this “Mass”: star baritone Paulo Szot (in the Celebrant role and recently of “South Pacific”); the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; conductor Marin Alsop (Baltimore Symphony Orchestra artistic director and Bernstein’s only female protégé); the Chicago Children’s Choir; Vocality chorus; the Highland Park High School Marching Band — plus more soloists and dancers. And then there’s the audience: more than 3,000 were seated in the Pavilion, and hundreds more crowded the lawn.

The Backstory to “Mass”

When Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) premiered “Mass” in 1971, his illustrious career had included conducting the New York Philharmonic for nearly a decade until 1969; composing for musicals such as “Candide,” “West Side Story” and “On the Town”; and hosting his televised music appreciation series “Young People’s Concerts” on CBS.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis — whose admiration for Bernstein also came from his roles conducting her late husband’s pre-inaugural gala and the funeral mass for Robert Kennedy — commissioned him to write “Mass” for the opening of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., in September 1971. Leonard Bernstein said he had always wanted “to compose a service of one sort or another.” He chose the Roman Catholic mass as inspiration, as John F. Kennedy had been the only Roman Catholic U.S. president.

His collaborators for “Mass” included lyricist Stephen Schwartz (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Wicked”) and choreographer Alvin Ailey, both leading artists of Broadway and contemporary dance in New York.

Paulo Szot and members of Chicago Children’s Choir. Photo by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival.
Paulo Szot and members of Chicago Children’s Choir. Photo by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival.

Despite having just one named character, the Celebrant (performed by Szot in this “Great Performances” production), “Mass” has the dimensions of a Broadway extravaganza. As the story unfolds, members of the Street Chorus find themselves in an existential quandary, wondering how they can believe in a God and a world that are seemingly blind to their plights. Though “Mass” debuted at the start of the turbulent 1970s, the chorus’ question is remarkably timely during this time of a world pandemic.

“Mass” first aired on “Great Performances” during its 1973-1974 season, marking the beginning of Bernstein’s storied association with the series. Though filmed a half-hour drive from Chicago and as part of the Ravinia Festival’s Leonard Bernstein Centennial, this new premiere on May 15, reminds us of treasures of New York City cultural life: the multi-talented Bernstein himself and the common act of gathering in a park to listen to world-class music as dusk settles on a warm summer evening.

More on Leonard Bernstein and His Work

Read more about the 2019 Ravinia Festival production of “Mass.”

Watch “Great Performances: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Celebration at Tanglewood” (through May 27). In honor of Leonard Bernstein’s 100th birthday, Tanglewood — the famed summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra — dedicated its entire 2018 season to the iconic composer, conductor, performer, educator and humanitarian. Learn more about the concert at Bernstein in Tanglewood.

Top Image: Paulo Szot and cast members of “Leonard Bernstein Mass.” Photo by Patrick Gipson/Ravinia Festival.