Hidden from small

Leonard Bernstein’s MASS Appeal

April 10, 2015

To say that The Philadelphia Orchestra will “take the stage” starting April 30 for the first of four performances through May 3 of Leonard Bernstein’s MASS doesn’t begin to do these extraordinary concerts justice. After all, as Vice President for Artistic Planning Jeremy Rothman explains, the subtitle is “A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers.” And even that just hints at what’s in store.

Photo: Will Figg

In fact Rothman says, “We will be deploying the stage and the setup of the musicians in a completely different way that has never been seen before in Verizon Hall.” Picture this: There will be both a stage orchestra and a pit orchestra (the first time Verizon Hall’s pit has been used). The string sections and some additional percussion will be down in the pit. The stage orchestra includes the usual winds and brass (sitting on the left, where we normally find the first violins); percussion; and, on the right, in place of the usual double basses and brass, a rock band!

Wait, there’s more: Across the back of the stage you’ll see a robed chorus of 100+ voices. In the middle of the stage, there’s a playing area arrayed with benches set up for the Celebrant (the key figure in MASS), a cast of 16 Broadway-style singers who’ll perform rock and blues and jazz solos. Not to mention a marching band, dancers, boy sopranos, and a boys choir.

The performances will even spill out into the aisles and balconies. All this will be enhanced by lighting and stylized video designed to make the presentation even more spectacular. In other words, says Rothman, “It’ll be a very four-dimensional kind of performance.”

The man charged with making this all work, stage director Kevin Newbury, agrees. “It should be a really immersive theatrical experience, unlike something you’d normally see at the symphony or a Broadway stage. It’s sort of like rock concert meets musical play meets symphonic experience, all rolled into one.”

Newbury expands: “We live in such a visual culture right now. I really applaud The Philadelphia Orchestra for doing things like this to make it an experience that is not really easy to categorize. Is it an opera, a musical, a concert? It’s a bit of everything. It’s really unlike anything else that’s out there.”

Newbury (who was stage director for last-season’s masterful presentation of Richard Strauss’s Salome co-presented with Opera Philadelphia) insists the extraordinary production won’t overshadow Bernstein’s work. “These things allow you to distill and focus on the story, and keep it fairly simple. It helps you bring out the story in a more direct way that’s really satisfying for us as a team of directors, designers, performers, musicians, and for the audience as well.”

Set design for The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performances of Bernstein’s MASS

Perhaps surprisingly, Newbury insists the lack of scenery in this production is actually an asset. “It makes the music the star of the evening. And, you get to see all of the orchestra play. When you go to the opera, you don’t really get to see the musicians, they’re hidden away. And on Broadway, the orchestra is so small. With MASS, the performer can just stand there and sing expressively with a beautiful video and lighting design, and the orchestra is right there, and you can see them all playing; you see the choir; the choir becomes scenery. It allows you to focus on the piece.”

He adds: “People just love this piece; they just go crazy for it. It cracks into something deep and meaningful for people, and it’s also just really cool music that’s fun to listen to; afterwards, you want to buy the soundtrack!”

Newbury couldn’t be happier to have Yannick Nézet-Séguin on the podium. “He’s amazing, an absolute force of nature. He’s a true collaborator. He wants it to be an exciting theatrical experience. He says yes before he says no; he’s a dream to work with. It’s all joy all the way through.”

Rothman makes it very clear he believes this is the right approach for MASS. “First and foremost, our obligation lies to do justice to this piece, and to the score, and to the intent of the work; to present the message and the spirit of the work; AND to create an experience for the community of Philadelphia. If you present a work like this in ‘concert’ format, you miss the purpose and the message of the piece.”

It’s an extraordinary show to pull off, given the enormous musical forces and the complexity of the production. But Rothman insists it’s worth the effort. “It’s really great music! This piece was ahead of its time. In the 1970s it was met with all kinds of criticism, both musically and in the scope and scale of the production. If you look now at what symphony orchestras are trying to achieve in various concert formats and presentations, expanding the kind of experience people have in the concert hall, Leonard Bernstein was at this 40 plus years ago, so he was very forward thinking in that respect.”

While he admits MASS is unlikely to appear regularly on the world’s stages, given its size and complexity, he’s optimistic about the work’s future. “We hope that people begin to approach it as really great music, a fun compilation of styles and genres. The piece may have been musically dated at the time it came out in 1971, but now, through the lens of over 40 years you come to appreciate the various styles that Bernstein was combining, and his incredible gift for melody. The story, the message of the piece is just as fresh as it was, if not more relevant than it was when it premiered.”

Can we look forward to more performances like this, outside the concert norm? “We will continue to look at works and pieces that make sense to present in fresh and exciting ways in the concert hall. In the end these things are always in service to the music, to the story these pieces are telling, and to what’s happening musically.”

Rothman sees a more basic reason to continue to explore new programming ideas: “Look; we have to take risks. Leonard Bernstein took a risk writing this piece. We should have the same courage and take these kinds of risks in the concert hall. If you don’t push and experiment and take risks, you never move forward.”

Mirroring the diverse musical fabric of MASS, additional events will bring different communities together and provide context for the work.

A panel discussion, Bernstein’s Mass: An Interfaith Dialogue, takes place on Wednesday, April 22, at 6 PM, at the Chapel of the Four Chaplains at the Temple Performing Arts Center, 1837 N. Broad St. The hour-long program is curated in partnership with the Dialogue Institute, a nonprofit organization based at Temple University and dedicated to ecumenical and interfaith scholarship and activism. It features moderator Ellen Frankel from the Dialogue Institute and panelists S. Zakiya Hasna Islam from Temple University, Hazzan David Tilman of Keneseth Israel, and Father Dennis Gill of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Following the conversation at 7:30 there will be a Temple University multi-choir concert, during which Temple’s Concert Choir will perform excerpts from MASS. Temple’s vocal groups have a rich history of performing with The Philadelphia Orchestra, having first appeared with the ensemble in 1933.

The Orchestra’s PreConcert Conversations that week will be diverse and lengthened, and will feature members of the Bernstein Family, as well as community members of various faiths.