February 3, 2009 / 12:47 PM / 8 years ago

Bernstein protege Alsop bringing "Mass" to London

4 Min Read

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - American conductor Marin Alsop will take another crack at convincing the world that Leonard Bernstein's troubled "Mass" is a masterpiece in the upcoming season at London's Southbank Center, organizers said.

Alsop will take the better part of a year to produce a performance of Bernstein's 1971 rock and classical work about a Catholic celebrant who has a crisis of faith and, in its famous "mad scene," smashes a chalice used for the mass on the floor.

Daniel Barenboim, who played all 32 Beethoven piano sonatas in the 2008 season, comes back for 2009-2010 to play the five piano concertos with the Berlin Staatskapelle.

The Takacs Quartet will play Beethoven's string quartets and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment will perform the nine symphonies.

British violinist Nigel Kennedy, who now lives in Poland, will preside over a weekend of Polish music, the center said.

"This shows the level, quality and depth of people coming here," Southbank head of music Marshall Marcus told Reuters.

Singers on the bill include sopranos Renee Fleming and Angela Gheorghiu as well as baritone Simon Keenlyside.

But for novelty and curiosity value, nothing can beat Alsop's virtual one-woman campaign to rescue Bernstein's ambitious performance piece from the obscurity its detractors say it so richly deserves.

Written at the request of Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy for the 1971 opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, "Mass" left critics sharply divided, with the reviewer for The New York Times calling it "cheap and vulgar."

The version Alsop will put on at Southbank, building on performances she has mounted in New York and elsewhere, will take from September of 2009 to July 2010 to reach the final performance, will involve non professionals from the community and have many multi-media elements.

"I think I was intrigued about it because it was one of those pieces that nobody talked about when he (Bernstein) was around," Alsop told Reuters in a recent interview.

"I think it was a piece that broke his heart on a fundamental level because of the way critics treated it -- not the public, the public was very responsive. They loved it."

Alsop, who was coached intensively by Bernstein on her conducting and became the first woman to head a major U.S. orchestra at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, has mounted about a half dozen revivals of "Mass" since the 1990s and considers it one of Bernstein's greatest works.

"I think that it's his Mahler Eighth," she said, referring to the work by the Viennese composer Gustav Mahler that is also called "The Symphony of a Thousand" for the huge forces required.

Alsop, and Southbank, are thinking big for this revival -- and long term.

"We're going to start building the participants for 'Mass' and I think the young musicians who will eventually play will be part of a larger mentoring process throughout the year," she said.

She noted that Bernstein, who started lecturing young people about classical music through the medium of television in the 1950s, had been a great proponent of getting his message across by whatever means were available.

"Although television was a pretty amazing new tool, now we can have a concert with the entire world if we want to," she said. "I don't know how far we'll get but certainly philosophically and fundamentally we want to explore these important questions."

The Southbank season opens with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Bernard Haitink playing Bruckner, Brahms, Mozart and Haydn for two concerts in September.

Reporting by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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