Marin Alsop on Leonard Bernstein’s Mass

Written by: Colin Anderson

On Sunday 5 June in the Barbican, Marin Alsop conducts a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass. Here she discusses the work and its composer…

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass is a weird and wonderful piece, or so I suggest to Marin Alsop. “It is weird in its own special way, but I think it’s a great piece. It’s better today than it was 30 years ago because it has got some distance from the, quote, hipness that he was trying to achieve and also the political associations are terribly relevant. I think we’re better able to relate to it: a lot of the sixties references are hip again and, unfortunately, the world situation is very similar.”

Bernstein describes Mass as a Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers. “We’re staging it as much as we can. We don’t have a lot of room once we’ve got the LSO on the stage; there’s a good 150 people in the cast! It’s going to be a spectacle to the degree we can make it a spectacle – that’s an important part of it. In 1971 this idea of mixing all these elements in a new kind of interdisciplinary way was quite avant-garde: there are amplified and recorded sounds, rock and roll; all these things are living side by side with the symphony orchestra, which was pretty forward-thinking.”

I wonder about influences; maybe Britten’s War Requiem, then new? “I’m sure it did to a certain extent; influences are everywhere. Bernstein’s Broadway experience played a big role, and the idea of Jesus Chris Superstar. All that stuff would have been fresh in Bernstein’s mind, and he was nothing if not a sponge – he always picked everything up and tried to integrate it into what he was doing.” But, does it work? “Well, I’m a disciple. I think it works fantastically well. One of the biggest hurdles Mass has to overcome is the mixed reaction it got from the critics at the premiere. Even people who don’t remember that are still influenced by it – it got a fantastic response from the audience and some journalists really liked it but, of course, the New York Times felt it was derivative and too hip. That Bernstein’s now been gone 15 years enables Mass to live a life of its own.”

Marin describes conducting Mass as “fun to do. Stephen Schwartz who did a lot of the lyrics has been updating them. Stephen told me that it was such a crunch to get Mass finished in time that he was slapping things together and he was never really happy with a couple of sections. The piece is still evolving but having Bernstein’s own recording is very helpful and makes me feel close to him. For me it depends on the action on stage; that really dictates the pacing of everything.” Marin studied with Bernstein but “I didn’t talk about Mass because it was a wound to him; I think he was terribly hurt by the negative criticism. He really tried to make Mass his major compositional statement. When you do something so innovative you are bound to be criticised, but he was very sensitive. He was also a vital, hungry, fun guy; he lived life to the absolute maximum. He would risk his fame and reputation to stand up for things he believed in; I think we’ve lost a bit of that in our time.”

Mass has been recorded by the composer (Sony) and by Kent Nagano (Harmonia Mundi) and Marin has recorded Chichester Psalms for Naxos (8.559177) and has Serenade and Facsimile in the can. Expect Naxos releases of Weill (“If you can call him American”) and Brahms (“not American!”). She thinks that Bernstein’s Mass is a religious work only “to some extent. He really just uses the mass as a framework to hang all of the different sections; it’s thought-provoking in terms of religion, which is a much hotter topic now. Ultimately, the moral, if there is one, is that there is hope for humanity. Like Beethoven, Bernstein really believed in the brotherhood of man and had great faith in the human ability to be good. I hope people come away with that feeling.”

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