PBS screens Ravinia's 2019 revival of Leonard Bernstein's 'Mass' this weekend
The coronavirus pandemic forced the Ravinia Festival in Highland Park to cancel its 2020 season. But there's still a way to experience the nation's oldest summer musical festival from the safety of your home.
This weekend, PBS broadcasts the Ravinia Festival's 2019 revival of Leonard Bernstein's "Mass" as part of its "Great Performances" series. This massive work, billed as "A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers," was a sold-out hit for Ravinia in 2018 as its season centerpiece celebrating the centennial of Bernstein's birth.
"The piece for me is all about connection and empathy and how a community responds to a collective crisis of faith," said Ravinia "Mass" stage director Kevin Newbury. "Not only does it include so many diverse musical styles and genres, it's kind of a blank slate to tell whatever story you want, and collaboration is really at the heart."
"Mass" had a shaky beginning in 1971 as a commission by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to open the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Bernstein worked with "Godspell" lyricist Stephen Schwartz to create a large-scale theatrical setting of the Catholic Mass to honor the late president, while also addressing contentious issues such as war, racism and class divisions.
Critics were initially dismissive. The sheer size of "Mass" also means that it rarely gets staged.
"('Mass') is a piece that today, with a lot of hindsight, everyone realizes was simply a work that was way ahead of its time," said Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman. "It's also just a great piece of music and involves a huge number of forces, which means it's incredibly expensive to do."
"Mass" at Ravinia featured more than 200 performers. It had the combined forces of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bernstein protégé Marin Alsop, the Chicago Children's Choir and Vocality chorus plus the Highland Park High School Marching Band. Front and center is a cast of "street" performers and Tony Award-winning Brazilian-Polish baritone Paulo Szot starring as "The Celebrant."
"I think that 'Mass' works best when you take a wildly contemporary approach," said Newbury, who stages the production as a congregation in conflict while also seeking resolutions.
"The Bernstein estate also gave us permission to write new letters during the big 'Word of the Lord' section," Newbury said. "To have those letters be so positively received in the audience -- they were just cheering for them -- it was really special and really documents where we are in the world right now."
"Mass" at Ravinia so impressed Bernstein's heirs that they pushed for the production to be preserved on video. So Kauffman had to go to the Ravinia board of directors to see if the funds could be raised for a revival, and if he could reassemble all the artists.
"What our biggest concern quite frankly is that the 2018 performance was so fantastic and so well done, but can you really replicate that? Sometimes when you try to do it again, it loses some energy and passion," Kauffman said. "Quite the contrary happened. Everyone was so comfortable with the work itself -- and it's difficult to do musically -- that it allowed them greater freedom from a dramatic point of view."
Newbury and Kauffman are both very happy with TV director Michael Beyer's work on capturing "Mass" for PBS. But for Kauffman, "Mass" is also slightly bittersweet.
Kauffman had announced that he planned to step down following the 2020 season after 20 years as Ravinia's president and CEO. "Mass" on PBS now essentially becomes his performance farewell.
"In terms of what the whole world is going through in terms of the lockdown and the isolation, music -- like most performances -- is a communal experience and I'm doubly pleased that it's going to air on PBS," Kauffman said. "Even more so after losing the entire 2020 season."
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"Great Performances" presents "Mass"
When: 9 p.m. Friday, May 15, and 1 p.m. Sunday, May 17
Via: Local PBS-TV affiliate WTTW (Channel 11) and pbs.org/gperf
"Mass" Virtual Panel Discussion
Guests include: Ravinia chief conductor and curator Marin Alsop, Ravinia president and CEO Welz Kauffman, singer/actor Paulo Szot, Chicago Children's Choir artistic director Josephine Lee and Highland Park High School band director Joshua Chodoroff with WFMT Vice President and General Manager George Preston as moderator.
When: 8:15 p.m. Friday, May 15