From Bernstein to Bay, Musical Dreams Come True
A community-wide collaboration creates a historic production for Austin
by Anne Bruno
To call the full staging of legendary conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” ambitious is more than an understatement.
First, consider the fact that Bernstein’s epic work, commissioned by his friend Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the grand opening of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, involves logistics of undeniably intimidating proportions: a cast of 250 singers and dancers, both children and adults; as many costumes; large-scale sets, lighting and sound; plus, an orchestra pit filled with top-notch musicians adept at moving easily between genres encompassing classical, blues, jazz, and rock. All of which takes place over the course of two hours, without intermission.
Second, owing to its massive scope and the cost associated with mounting such a complicated production, “MASS” is one of Bernstein’s least-produced works. In contrast to iconic pieces such as “West Side Story,” complete productions of the entirety of “MASS” anywhere in the world have been relatively few and far between since its premiere in Washington D.C. on September 8, 1971.
2018 marks the centennial of the internationally beloved composer’s birth. Over the course of the last year, hundreds of events across the globe have taken place to honor one of the greatest creative minds of the 20th century.
Here in Austin, a season of festivities celebrating Bernstein will culminate with two fully-staged productions of “MASS” on June 29 and 30. These performances, led by Peter Bay, music director and conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra will make local history as well, representing the largest collaboration of performing arts organizations in Austin ever.
It’s a big deal.
Big enough, in fact, to draw members of both the Kennedy and Bernstein families to the audience when the production takes the stage of Dell Hall at Austin’s Long Center. Alongside a who’s who of Austin’s cultural scene will be young people from across the city, including members of the Boys & Girls Club of Austin, experiencing the excitement of a live show in a world-class concert hall for the very first time.
I sat down to talk with Peter Bay and Grammy-winning soprano, Mela Sarajane Dailey, who appears in the show. Collaborators in life and less-often in work, Bay and Dailey have been married for 12 years. In addition to performing, Dailey also put her years of experience in the arts development world to work as one of the show’s two executive producers.
In the 20 years since Maestro Bay brought his baton to Austin, he’s earned a reputation as an accessible and inclusive arts leader. As with Bernstein, Bay and Dailey share a passion for using outreach and education to spread the joy of music to all, with an emphasis on young people. Sitting on the table in front of Bay as we talk is a cherished item, a 47-year-old theater program that has everything to do with the shows we’re discussing.
Anne Bruno: The full staging of Bernstein’s “MASS” sounds like an unusual production, especially for Austin. How did the production, which involves so many Austin musical organizations, come together?
Peter Bay: Well, for me, the seeds were planted about 52 years ago, but a number of circumstances surrounding Leonard Bernstein’s centennial led up to it. When I was nine I saw one of Bernstein Concerts for Young People on television. That’s all it took; I decided then and there that I was going to be a conductor, as ridiculous an idea as that was. And then later, in 1971, when he came to Washington D.C. to conduct the premiere of “MASS,” I took the bus to the Kennedy Center to see it.
Mela Sarajane Dailey: That was back when cultural arts were a part of network television. Leonard Bernstein was truly a master communicator and one of the first to use television to educate people of all ages about classical music. He wanted everyone to learn about it, not just the elite or people who had the means to go to the symphony.
AB: Sounds like a parallel to some of the music programming you’ve brought to Austin since you’ve been here, Peter.
PB: Bernstein certainly was my model. He wasn’t going to come to my house, but he did come into my living room and teach me about classical music via television. He was by far the most accessible of composers.
MSD: I have to jump in and say something here. The thing about Bernstein…even if you didn’t completely understand everything he was talking about…his enthusiasm was so engaging, you were willing to just listen and you’d learn. And that way of engaging people is very much like Peter. I have a master’s degree in music and I learn something new every time I hear Peter speak. He’s able to explain things on a level where people feel so engaged and excited. No one has to feel like they’re left out of the party. That kind of approach was a huge factor in putting this whole thing together.
AB: The performances on June 29 and 30 are part of a larger effort that included a lot of education and outreach. Tell me about BernsteinAustin100, which started back in January with a kick-off event at the Bullock Texas State History Museum.
MSD: As exciting as the two performances of “MASS” are going to be, two shows aren’t enough to create a lasting impact. We’re both big believers in music education – we’ve each been the beneficiaries of people investing in us…they didn’t have to, but they did and it made a difference. We feel like there’s another nine-year-old Peter Bay out there who’s going to be inspired. This is for everyone. Classical music, any kind of music, can’t just be for the elite.
PB: We’ve had a full six months of community programs leading up to the performances of “MASS.” We’ve had free events at the Bullock Museum, panel discussions around town, what I call “informances” or listening parties in private homes, and fun things like sing-alongs. We’ve done events in other cities like Houston, San Antonio, and Santa Fe, too. We’ve just tried to spread the word everywhere about what’s happening.
AB: How did you make sure you weren’t just reaching the usual crowd of arts patrons?
MSD: We started by asking, “When people do a big show like this, who’s typically left out of the equation? And who’s usually not invited?” So, we reached out to every arts organization in the city and all kinds of music educators to get as many people involved [on the performance, as well as audience side] as possible. It’s about 300 altogether.
PB: In addition to the ASO, we have groups like Ballet Austin, Conspirare, Austin Children’s Choir, the Chisholm Trail Middle School Choir from Round Rock, the Zach Theater Pre-Professional Program, and the UT Marching Band. It’s a huge collaboration – that’s something we’re especially humbled by and proud of.
MSD: We even have the African Children’s Choir coming all the way from Uganda to be a part of this! And that was a result of us seeing and meeting them several years ago when they were in Austin. I wondered out loud if something like that could ever be possible…and one of our very generous collaborators who’d worked with them before jumped in and helped make it happen.
PB: I think a key component here is that people wanted to support the collaborative nature of the project. This will be the first time in the history of the city that all of the major performing arts organizations are working together on a single production – that’s never happened in Austin before.
MSD: In terms of who’ll be attending, our Friday Kids & Family Night performance is probably the most important. Every one of Austin’s arts groups has in some way helped in the educational outreach. Through some incredibly generous partners, we’re able to give away tickets [nearly 500 so far] to local nonprofits like the Boys & Girls Club. We’ve designed a special program, almost like a giant placement, to help kids see all the elements. Thinking about it, the program was all the things I’d want our 10-year-old to have. For example, as Peter’s conducting, he motions one way and certain sounds come out of the orchestra pit – we want kids to be able to understand exactly what’s happening.
AB: You mentioned partners. I can only imagine how much a production like this costs. Where did the funds come from and when did the fundraising start?
MSD: Actually, I can you tell you exactly when fundraising started [laughing] – the day Peter and I talked about trying to make this dream come true, and I decided to leave my other work and go all in on this project full-time!
PB: Two years ago, I’d met Bernstein’s niece, Karen, who lives here in Austin and she suggested the ASO do “MASS.” I chuckled for a few minutes, like “Sure, easy for you to say.” Of course, I’d wanted to conduct the piece since I first saw it, but because of the enormous expense, it was cost-prohibitive for us or any other single organization in Austin to do. Well, I mentioned this meeting to her [MSD], she thought about it, then talked to her friend, Rick Gabrillo. They decided they’d form a company and their first project would be to raise funds and gather the cast for an independent Austin production. It’s turned out to be extraordinarily daunting … but they’ve pulled it off. With the help of many, many very generous donors, corporate and private alike.
AB: So, Sarajane, exactly, how did you pull it off? The logistics alone sound overwhelming. Are you the queen of production meetings?
PB: Yes! She’s the most important part.
MSD: [Laughing] I’m just really happy to be useful, to contribute to something so worthwhile. But it’s all about our incredible partners. Over time, we recruited this team of ambassadors and said, “Here’s the vision, do you believe in this? Here’s the plan and we think we can get there.” I’d seen the budgets for productions in Philadelphia and Baltimore and each one was close to $2 million…definitely impossible. But, I thought if we go down the list for the cast, reach out to all the incredible talent here in Austin and gather a ton of partners on a budget that’s totally lean and mean, I bet we can meet somewhere in the middle…create something together that wouldn’t otherwise exist.
It’s been an effort that’s totally strategic. We’re small in our infrastructure but collaborating with lots of partners allows all boats to rise together. As for the logistics, we do it by relying heavily on lots of people! We’ve got multiple rehearsals in multiple locations happening at one time. And everything from school buses to pizza for the kids to crazy schedules to coordinate. But we’ve gathered this team of true experts in their fields…it’s thrilling to be a part of it and learn so much and grow together. Everyone at the table has taken a pay cut to make this happen so, for all of us, it’s about pride in and satisfaction in what we’re doing.
PB: So many people have not only shared their money and talent, but they’ve given their friendship to us. From individual donors to corporate sponsors, people have been unbelievably generous and jumped right in with us.
MSD: We’ve gone to the best because if you’re going to do it, you do it right – everyone we’ve asked has said, “Yes, count us in.” It’s the only reason we’ve been able to do it. Everyone, I think, is so tired of divisiveness…if we can’t come together when it comes to the arts, then we don’t have hope. I think people have felt inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit and the galvanizing nature of the whole project.
AB: How does a unifying message play out in the actual story depicted in “MASS?”
PB: Remember, it was 1971 when Bernstein wrote it, during the Vietnam War. Many people had lost faith in their government and there was a lot of distrust during the Nixon era. There was definitely a crisis of faith on multiple levels for lots of people. But Bernstein, ever the optimist, felt it was important to finish his piece with an uplifting message – it demonstrates that even when the leaders fall down, it’s up to the people to help him or her back up.
MSD: What speaks to me in the story is that The Celebrant, the community’s leader – the one who’s supposed to keep it all together – is flawed like every other human being. He has this full-on crisis. And it’s a child who’s the one to bring him back and show the community what it’s like to lift each other up, that we need one another.
PB: Bernstein only agreed to the commission after some persuasion. I think it was difficult for him to write a piece honoring JFK, who was a personal friend of his. He must have been dealing with a lot of grief over the loss. He intended to write something small but I think as the seed was planted, the piece morphed into this huge thing. And for a number of reasons, the work was controversial from the start.
Here, you had a Jewish man creating a Catholic mass to honor his Catholic friend. It has Latin prayers from the Roman mass, as well as English. And, Bernstein called it a theater piece – it wasn’t meant to be a church service. He had help with the text from his friend, another Jewish person, Stephen Schwarz, who had composed “Godspell.” And it also has some lyrics contributed by Paul Simon. This was the era of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell,” where very religious topics were turned into musicals, sort of bringing the message to the people in a kind of Woodstock way, on Broadway.
It was important for Bernstein to include non-classical elements in the work. He was completely comfortable working in all these different styles of music … so, you have rock musicians and a blues band inside the framework of a mass.
MSD: I find it such a relevant, empowering message. It’s the artistic embodiment of hope.
AB: With rehearsals starting, is it becoming real to you yet, the fact that your dream is coming true?
PB: I don’t think it’ll hit me until performance week, when we’re in the theater. It’s still hard to imagine it’s really happening.
Performances of Leonard Bernstein’s “MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers” takes place on Friday, June 29 and Saturday, June 30 at the Long Center. For details, visit bernstein100austin.org or thelongcenter.org/event/bernstein-mass.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.