On Sept. 8, 1971, official, artistic and social Washington, D.C., joined hands by the Potomac River. The glittering occasion that momentarily bridged some of the partisan divide — along with nagging concerns about the Vietnam War and other global tensions — was the grand opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
This blocky yet elegant set of new performance spaces rivaled New York’s Lincoln Center for modernist glamour. None other than former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy commissioned its controversial opening show, “Mass,” a mammoth theatrical venture created by a Kennedy family friend — the celebrity composer, conductor and educator Leonard Bernstein.
In the audience for the fourth performance was a skinny teenager named Peter Bay, who, in 1998, became music director of the Austin Symphony, a title he still holds today.
“It was imperative that I attend,” Bay says. “I was so moved at age 14, it would be a dream of mine to conduct ‘Mass’ someday. This is 1971 and now it’s 47 years later. And it is happening.”
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For just two performances on June 29 and 30, more than 300 singers, dancers and instrumentalists from a cadre of Austin arts groups will join forces at the Long Center for the Performing Arts with a rock band, a jazz combo and an African children’s choir to revive “Mass” in honor of the centennial of the late Bernstein’s birth.
Not only will this be among the rare full stagings of the 1971 show with sets, costumes and lighting, it is the only such one in the world timed to the “Bernstein at 100” celebrations, a global roster that includes 22 events in four countries over the course of two years.
Members of the Kennedy and Bernstein families plan to fly down for a cluster of Austin events that will include a gala dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel Austin on June 28.
Estimated costs for the spectacle were initially pegged at $1.9 million, but the unflagging efforts during the past three years by an improvised group of local producers, led chiefly by Bay’s wife, singer Mela Sarajane Dailey, brought the price tag down to $1 million.
It goes without saying that “Mass” is the most highly anticipated event of this year’s Austin performing arts season, a companion in terms of ambition to the opening of Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin” at the Blanton Museum of Art.
For Bay, this “Mass” also evokes layers of personal symbolism.
“At age 6 as a boy soprano, I sang at the early funeral mass for President John F. Kennedy,” he says, making it clear that the famous picture of John-John Kennedy saluting his father’s coffin came at later funeral services that day. “And Bernstein was my role model from age 9 when I first saw his ‘Young People’s Concerts’ broadcasts on TV. I had heard him on records, but ‘Mass’ was my first time to see him in person.”
On Jan. 4, 1976, Bay finally met the great man.
“I skipped school and went to his rehearsal,” Bay says. “He signed my souvenir program.”
To round out the early Bernstein-Bay circle of celebrity and influence, in 1994, a still-young Bay was one of two conductors selected to participate in the Leonard Bernstein American Conductors Program and led the Dallas Symphony Orchestra in a concert as a result.
“Mass” is hard to describe. Coming in at about two hours, it is based on the Catholic Tridentine Mass, but it is not a traditional Christian service. The priestlike Celebrant leads several choirs, including street singers, while acolytes perform dances and offer assistance. It was plainly influenced by counterculture expressions of religious fervor, such as “Jesus Christ Superstar” and “Godspell,” whose creator, Stephen Schwartz, contributed to the lyrics.
One more “Mass” coincidence before we go on: The original production was conducted by Maurice Peress, the recently deceased conductor and Bernstein protégé, who was in 1971 music director of — you guessed it — Austin Symphony.
Tradition has it that Peress was let go from that position because of his affiliation with the disputed “Mass,” which President Richard Nixon skipped in part because the FBI warned him the Latin text might contain anti-war or anti-establishment messages. Bernstein did not appear on Nixon’s secret “Enemies List,” but his leftist sympathies had led him to be closely watched by the administration.
Forty-seven years later, it is a tribute to the maturity of Austin’s arts community — a state of affairs unimaginable, say, 20 years ago — that so many marquee groups collaborated on this one project. Among the varied outfits on the roster are Austin Opera, Ballet Austin, Austin Symphony, Conspirare, Chorus Austin, Panoramic Voices, University of Texas Butler School of Music, Huston-Tillotson University, Texas State University, Austin Children’s Choir and Chisholm Trail Middle School.
Although dozens of individuals across Austin’s arts spectrum have worked on the program for years, one person, Dailey, is mainly responsible for making Bay’s “Mass” ambitions come to pass.
“He told me about this dream 14 years ago,” Dailey says. “I remember it was on Memorial Day and we were on our first date. It turned into a four-hour lunch at Central Market. I have to tell you that I had the biggest crush in the world on him.”
As Bay regaled Dailey with stories about “Mass,” however, she had no concept of the scale required of this theater-dance-music-sermon extravaganza. She was familiar with only one Bernstein number from the show, “Simple Song,” which had already appeared in the movie “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”
“At the time, I had no idea exactly how large a project ‘Mass’ would be,” Dailey admits. “Then three years ago, I started doing the research. My question: How can this happen?”
It was about this time that Bay also was taking the possible project seriously. He met with Ann Hume Wilson, president and general manager of the classical radio station KMFA. She’s also former executive director of Conspirare, the city’s Grammy Award-winning professional choir, as well as former associate director of the Blanton Museum of Art.
Turns out that Wilson had a long family history with “Mass.” Her father, Paul Hume, longtime music critic of the Washington Post, wrote one of the few positive reviews of the Kennedy Center version. Her brother Michael Hume was in the original chorus and has sung the Celebrant, the central priestlike role, more times than anyone else.
“We were talking about how we could do a joint tribute for the centennial,” Bay recalls. “Ann said, ‘Did you know that his niece, Karen Bernstein, lives in Austin?’”
Turns out that the documentary maker had already forged a connection to the city’s arts community through a film for Ballet Austin’s “Light: The Holocaust and Humanity Project.”
Karen Bernstein and Bay met for lunch at Enoteca.
“What’s the best way to honor your uncle?” Bay asked. “‘Well, just do “Mass.’ Once I stopped laughing, I said that it was too expensive. It requires hundreds of performers. Her response was something like, ‘Most of the talent is right here in Austin.’”
Then Bay met with policy analyst Ying Tang and mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be nice to produce this?” She agreed to do the initial budgeting and research. After that, the reins were turned over to Dailey and co-producer Rick Gabrillo. Together, they formed Merick Strategies, an arts management group now with eight employees.
“We left our salaried jobs to form a company to raise the funds,” Dailey says. “At one point, we proposed it to Austin Symphony to lead the team, but instead it became an independent project.”
Later, Paul Beutel, who recently retired from the Long Center and who played a longtime leadership role at the Paramount Theatre, signed on as another producer. But first, Dailey and Gabrillo whittled down the costs.
“We took Ying’s research and asked every artistic entity if they could meet us in the middle,” Dailey says. “We could do it really lean and mean for $585,000. But we assembled a team of ambassadors and, in six weeks, we raised enough to add an incredible set, fabulous costumes and beautiful lighting.”
Although most of the cast is homegrown, internationally celebrated baritone Jubilant Sykes was brought on to play the Celebrant.
“He had performed it numerous times,” Bay says. “And he recorded it for Naxos (Records).”
Producer, guitar player and educator Mitch Watkins is slated to lead the rock band component. Lynne Dobson and Whataburger made it possible for the African Children’s Choir to fly in from Uganda to perform. Josh Miller, recently of Texas State University, directs.
Although Dallas and Houston have seen concert versions, this is the first time “Mass” will be fully staged in Texas.
“Even the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which produced it in February, didn’t fully stage it,” Dailey says. “We have 80 more performers than they did in L.A. and 70 more than the original production at the Kennedy Center.”
The twists and turns in the saga of landing “Mass” on the Dell Hall stage remind one of UT’s attempt to produce all of radical director — and former UT student — Robert Wilson’s “The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down” in 1986 for the Texas Sesquicentennial. In the end, UT could pull together just the interstitial “Knee Plays” from the mesmerizing cycle first produced piecemeal in Tokyo, Marseille, Rome, Rotterdam, Minneapolis and Cologne.
“There were stops and starts along the way,” Bay says about “Mass.” “Some more dramatic than others. Sarajane took care of that. She keeps that strength in reserve. I don’t. She shielded me. I wouldn’t say it aged me. But friendships have been created or drastically deepened during this project. People who stayed with it would not accept defeat and wanted everyone to succeed.”
Leonard Bernstein’s ‘Mass’
When: 8 p.m. June 29-30
Where: Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riveside Drive
Who is in ‘Mass’
These are among the 300 participants:
Maestro Peter Bay
Jubilant Sykes, Celebrant
22 soloists, including multiple Grammy Award winners
Bernstein100Austin Chorus featuring members of Grammy-winning Conspirare with Craig Hella Johnson, Chorus Austin, Panoramic Voices, Huston-Tillotson and Texas State University
Austin Children’s Choir
Chisholm Trail Middle School Choir
The African Children’s Choir
Marching band featuring past and present members of the UT Wind Ensemble
Rock band led by Mitch Watkins
Austin Symphony Orchestra
Members of Ballet Austin