Peter Bay’s MASS Appeal

The local maestro brings Leonard Bernstein’s massive stagework to Austin with a lot of help from a lot of friends

Peter Bay (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

Peter Bay, conductor and music director of the Austin Symphony Orchestra, is realizing a childhood dream with two performances of Leonard Bernstein's MASS: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers at the Long Center on the last weekend of June.

Even if glorious masterpieces were as common as sand in a desert, this MASS is not just another glorious masterpiece. This MASS is a mixture of musical genres, from gospel, blues, rock, and jazz to Broadway and classical, with text by Bernstein and additional text by Stephen Schwartz and Paul Simon. This MASS is a fully staged production that incorporates 300 cast and crew members. This MASS

"It's the first time that the Austin Sym­phony, Ballet Austin, Austin Opera, Con­spir­are, Chorus Austin, Panoramic Voices, and the Austin Children's Choir have all collaborated on a single production," says Bay. "And we're bringing in the African Children's Choir from Uganda. They're touring the United States at this time, and they're going to be part of this."

This MASS is part of – let's go ahead and call it the apotheosis of – the Bern­stein100Aus­tin celebration of the late composer-conductor's 100th birthday, a celebration that's included several ASO concerts, a West Side Story sing-along at the Alamo Drafthouse, and any number of official or ad hoc discussions of the beloved maestro and his accomplishments and influence.

One example of Bernstein's influence is embodied by Bay himself.

"I saw Bernstein on television when I was 9 years old," he says. "He used to have the Young People's Concerts at the Philharmonic on CBS four times a year. Can you imagine? On network television: culture. And just seeing Bernstein on TV, and the energy he was emitting – not only when he was conducting the orchestra, but when he turned around and was talking to the audience. I felt like he was talking to me. It was clear that what he was doing was incredibly exciting, and I thought, 'This is cool, this is what I wanna do.'"

But it wasn't just the televised Bernstein that inspired this raven-haired celebrant of the classical arts who's been leading the ASO since 1998. It was the man himself, in the flesh, at the fourth performance of MASS at the Kennedy Center in 1971. Young Peter Bay was there, having taken a bus to reach the event.

At age 14, Bay saw the premiere of Bernstein’s MASS at the opening of the Kennedy Center. “Then I was determined – somehow, some way – to conduct the work at some point. And now, 47 years later ...”

"I was 14," says Bay, "and MASS was the work that had been commissioned to open the Kennedy Center. So I got myself down there, saw the piece, and then I was determined – somehow, some way – to conduct the work at some point. And now, 47 years later ..." He chuckles, this affable Bay, but it's a chuckle suffused with the knowledge of this particular production's demands.

"The primary hurdle in anyone trying to perform MASS is the number of people required – and the expense," he says. "Since the first performance I saw was a staged performance, I felt that we needed to stage it here. There have been performances of MASS since it opened, of course, but many of them have been either semi-staged or the concert version, where the symphony, the choruses, they're all on the stage – but without any sets or costumes. We're doing this production as it was originally intended."

You might think that something this grand and complex, it wouldn't be an event that even the Austin Symphony could afford to offer. And you'd be right.

"This is an independent production," says Bay. "It uses the symphony, but the symphony is not producing it. It's too expensive for the symphony – or the opera, or the ballet – to put on. So, two years ago, my wife [Mela Sarajane Dailey] formed a company with her friend Rick [Gabrillo], in order to fund the production – to find the money, get donors, and arrange all the technical trappings of dealing with the venue, the lighting, the set design, and on and on. It was an incredible risk. I've never been part of anything like this before, especially as an independent thing. But I have to hand it to Sarajane, it's happening. I don't know that I'll ever do anything like it again – not independently, that's for sure – but, boy, what we've learned."

What you can learn from this article, reader, if you're unfamiliar with Bern­stein's magnum opus, is that it's drawn from the composer's exploration of Jewish and Catholic traditions and examines the crisis in faith and cultural breakdown of the post-Kennedy era. Bernstein drew some inspiration for MASS, in fact, while conducting at his friend Robert F. Kennedy's funeral.

"This was written during the Vietnam War, during the Nixon years, so there was a lot of doubt about everything," says Bay. Bernstein "was a very devout pacifist and didn't understand why we, as a major country in the world, were spending billions of dollars on warheads instead of, you know, educating children or embracing the arts. There's a climactic moment at the end of the 'Agnus Dei' section, where the whole cast is starting to freak out, and on the words 'dona nobis pacem,' – 'grant us peace' – well, it's a rock & roll improvisatory freak-out, basically, if I can use an old Seventies term. Everyone goes nuts. The Celebrant can't take it anymore. As in a Roman Catholic mass, the priest or the celebrant is the one who leads the mass. And he stops everything dead in its tracks and he yells, 'Patia! Patia!' and he throws the chalice down, smashing it to smithereens."

The role of the Celebrant in Austin will be performed by Jubilant Sykes. Who, unlike much of the cast, isn't from around here.

"I don't know where he lives," says Bay. "Maybe New York? But nearly everyone in the cast is from Austin, or has Austin connections. And the lighting director, stage director, crew – all from Austin. There are very few that we're importing from elsewhere. But Jubilant's performed the role a number of times, and made a commercial recording of it. We wanted to have an experienced Celebrant, somebody who's taken part in the production and knows the role inside out. It's like, you know, in football, you're gonna draft to get a good quarterback to start – and we've got one in him."

A good quarterback to start – and to finish. Much like Bay has started and will soon finish this work of Bernstein's. And after this complex theatrical marvel? After a man achieves a goal that's been beckoning to him since schoolyard days, what's next? Not hoping to mix metaphors as effectively as Bernstein mixed tropes of popular music into his classical works, but what's the next mountain for ASO quarterback Bay to scale?

"I have a lot of hills to scale after this," amends the conductor. "This is by far the biggest mountain I've ever scaled in my career. I've never worked on something for as long as I've worked on this piece – two years. I'm very lucky to have been invited by Austin Opera to conduct La Bohème – which is also a major milestone, any opera is – but, as far as my career is concerned, MASS is probably the most important event I've ever taken part in. And I'm thrilled that it's happening in Austin. Everyone knows how amazing a city this is for the arts, and this is just proof of it."

Leonard Bernstein’s MASS will be performed June 29 & 30, Fri. & Sat., 8pm, in Dell Hall at the Long Center, 701 W. Riverside. For more information, visit

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