Leonard Bernstein’s Mass: Interview with Joshua Tan and Edith Podesta

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, in collaboration with Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

Preview by Aileen Tang

First published 23 May 2018

2018 is the centenary year of Leonard Bernstein’s birth and orchestras all over the world are celebrating the works of this prolific composer. Singapore audiences will already be familiar with West Side Story and  Chichester Psalms, but we’re in for a real treat next month when the Orchestra of the Music Makers (OMM) presents the Singapore Premiere of his less familiar Mass. The semi-staged collaboration with the Esplanade, with more than 200 performers gathered on stage, features conductor Joshua Tan, with director Edith Podesta and Broadway star Kevin Vortmann, who we interviewed for this special preview.

The name ‘Mass’ suggests something fusty and inaccessible, but Joshua Tan (right) quickly dispels this misconception. “It’s a theatrical – almost operatic – piece which should not be compared with a traditional mass’, he says. Though based on the Roman Catholic liturgy and sung in Latin, Mass includes additional English texts by Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz (now of ‘Wicked’ fame) to explore what happens when a community experiences a crisis of faith. It is a celebration of life as we follow the central character’s emotional journey of disillusionment, doubt and renewal that comes almost full circle.

Mass was commissioned in the shadow of the Vietnam War by Jacqueline Kennedy, widow of President John F. Kennedy, for the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in 1971. But its appeal is timeless, explains Tan. ‘It applies immediately to our modern world,’ he says, ‘and deals with the human condition, community and faith. It doesn’t matter if it’s 1971 or 1971BC or 2171. We’re still going to be asking the same questions…it has to be solved by love.’

‘It’s about humanity, not religion,’ says Podesta ‘It’s about grappling with faith and finding a very simple, complicated answer to what is faith, what is God. How do we deal with this world we live in, because now it’s gotten a lot more complicated – all of our lives have. It’s about trying to understand the universe in which we live and trying to understand other people.’

To answer these questions, Bernstein employs massive forces. In addition to a full symphony orchestra, Mass boasts 17 soloists, three choirs and a rock band, and takes them through a heady, eclectic mix of genres, including jazz, blues, folk, rock and pop as well as Broadway and symphonic dances – an experimental combination that Podesta feels fits right in with OMM’s energy and spirit of experimentation.

No stranger to large choral symphonies, OMM’s tackled Mahler’s second and eighth symphonies, as well as Beethoven’s Ninth, but Bernstein’s inclusion of so many forces adds even more layers of complexity.

For Tan, the greatest challenge with this work is managing the ‘extremely tricky’ transitions and ‘making the work an organic whole’, with all the different groups who may not be used to playing and singing with each other. For example, he says, ‘electric guitars almost never play with a symphonic orchestra [and] the reaction time from these musicians might be a little different,” but he assures us that these will all be resolved during rehearsals.

To Podesta, it is a ‘beautiful challenge’ and she acknowledges that the differences cannot be ignored – ‘they are there for a reason’. Being a semi-staged production, there will not be dancers (despite the work’s full title ‘for Singers, Players, and Dancers’), but she reveals that multimedia designer Brian Gothong Tan will be doing something very special, involving onstage cameras which will show a little more of ‘what and how we put our faith in things’. She will be using the whole Theatre itself as the set and backdrop, and that ‘everyone will be on stage (as opposed to the orchestra in the pit) – and that’s a lot of people on stage!’

Podesta urges audiences to discover for themselves the intensity of this work: ‘I don’t know when is the next time you’re ever going to get 120-strong chorus, 17 amazing singers and a 100-piece orchestra in the same place. I don’t know when that will happen again. And it’s the premiere – so maybe you’ll want to be here for the premiere!’

Leonard Bernstein’s Mass plays on Saturday 2 June 2018, 7.30pm at the Esplanade Concert Hall
Tickets at $15 and $30 available from Sistic https://www.sistic.com.sg/events/cmass0618

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