BWW Interview: Peter Bay on Texas-sized production of 'MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers'

BWW Interview: Peter Bay on Texas-sized production of 'MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers'

Leonard Bernstein is an American treasure. He was one of the first American born conductors to receive worldwide acclaim. His fame is derived not only from his long tenure as the music director of the New York Philharmonic, but also from his conducting most of the world's leading orchestras, and from his prodigious body of music as the composer of West Side Story, Peter Pan, Candide, Wonderful Town, On the Town, On the Waterfront, MASS and a range of other compositions, including three symphonies and many shorter chamber and solo works.

Bernstein was the first conductor to give a series of television lectures on classical music, primarily aimed at youth, starting in 1954 and continuing until his death. As a composer, he has created pieces that are, without question, part of the fabric of our lives.

"MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers" was composed by Leonard Bernstein with text by Bernstein and additional text and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, it premiered on September 8, 1971. The performance was part of the opening of The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

Austin will have the rare opportunity to experience this glorious piece as part of the Bernstein at 100 celebration this month. BroadwayWorld recently had the opportunity to talk to conductor Peter Bay, Musical Director and Conductor of the Austin Symphony Orchestra about the upcoming production.

BWW: Who are the producers and directors for MASS?
PB: The producer of MASS is Merick Strategies. Founded by Mela Sarajane Dailey and Rick Gabrillo, Merick Strategies is a consulting and production agency with expertise in large-scale performances, special events, fundraising, and uniting the corporate and nonprofit sectors in unique and exciting partnerships - with the goal of enhancing the brands of all players while benefiting the communities they call home. www.merickstrategies.com. I am the music director, and the stage director is Josh Miller.

BWW: What was the driving force behind producing Bernstein's MASS locally?
PB: The centennial of Leonard Bernstein's birth is 2018, and it seemed the best way to celebrate the occasion was to produce a fully staged MASS in the city I have called home for the last twenty years. With just a few exceptions, all of the talent on stage and behind the stage has come from Austin. Two years ago I learned Karen Bernstein (Leonard's niece and film documentarian) called Austin home, and she felt a production of MASS would be an ideal celebration of her uncle's legacy.

BWW: What has been your biggest challenge in producing this Bernstein classic?
PB: As this is an independent production, putting all the elements together from scratch has been most daunting. The size of the cast, the number of costumes needed, the enormity of the set, the necessity of several rehearsal venues, and the costs involved have presented unprecedented challenges.

BWW: I was really excited to hear that Jubilant Sykes was going to do the role of Celebrant again. How did you make that happen?
PB: I wanted to have someone experienced in the role to be our Celebrant, and was so impressed with his recording of MASS with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra that we contacted his agent. Fortunately he was available and we're very excited to have him come to Austin.

BWW: When did this production get to the point that you knew it was going to come together? I guess what I am asking here is how long was the pre-production period?
PB: We started assembling a budget and other production information in early 2016. After months of working on the budget, we were able to give our production the green light in October 2016 and preceded to give 22 cultivation concerts and events in four countries.

BWW: How long have the rehearsals been?
PB: Choral rehearsals began in January 2018, and the majority of the musical rehearsals take place between May 31 and June 27.

BWW: Are there other events involved in Bernstein at 100?
PB: As part of the Bernstein100Austin calendar we held panel discussions at the Bullock Texas State History Museum, two "West Side Story" sing-a-longs at the Alamo Drafthouse, a listening tour of MASS at University United Methodist Church, and intimate musical programs throughout Austin and in Houston, San Antonio and Santa Fe, NM.

BWW: I've been told this is a "Texas sized production." Can you elaborate on that?
PB: Unlike many of the recent performances of MASS ours will be fully staged, and will include more performers than the Kennedy Center premiere production or the latest semi-staged performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

BWW: I'm impressed by the fact you've put together a company of over 250 artists that is incredibly inclusive. Who are all of the Austin artists involved in MASS?
PB: This production features 23 vocal soloists who are either Austin based or have Austin connections, the Austin Symphony Orchestra, members of Ballet Austin and Austin Opera, an adult chorus comprising members of Conspirare, Chorus Austin and Panoramic Voices, a youth chorus comprising members of the Austin Children's Choir and Chisholm Trail Middle School Chorus, instrumentalists from the University of Texas Butler School of Music, a rock band led by Mitch Watkins, and a wonderful production team all locally based. Joining these Austin artists will be Jubilant Sykes who lives in Los Angeles and the African Children's Choir who will be coming in from Uganda.

BWW: What has been your biggest joy in bringing MASS to life here in Austin?
PB: At the age of 14 I attended the fourth performance of the 1971 premiere production of MASS at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It left a lasting memory and an intense desire to conduct the work one day. Forty-six years later that dream is coming true, and I'm so proud of the fact that we have the necessary talent to put on such a complex and gigantic work right here in Austin. All this would not have happened without the help of many people who believe in this work and the historic collaboration of Austin talent. I'm most grateful to Merick Strategies co-founder and my wife Mela Dailey who supported the crazy notion of producing MASS some fourteen years ago.

BWW: Is there anything else you'd like to share with our readers?
PB: Please make every effort to come to one of the performances at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. It's an inspiring and challenging work, one that will leave a lasting impression on you.

Having experienced the Kennedy Center performance thanks to PBS airing it back in 1971, I wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Bay about the power of this remarkable theatre piece from Bernstein and encourage Austin audiences to not miss this once in a lifetime performance.

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From This Author Frank Benge

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