Though he died in 1990, Leonard Bernstein can still fill the air with energy. To celebrate his birthday, Carnegie Hall and the Philharmonic are putting on a huge festival centering on Mass, Bernstein’s over-the-top 1971 tribute to JFK. New York spoke with Marin Alsop, a Lenny protégée who’ll lead her Baltimore Symphony at Carnegie on October 24.
Mass can come as something of a shock. What was your first encounter with it?
Before I heard it, I heard Bernstein talking about it. There was a lot of emotion attached to it for him. The critical reception was devastating, and he was wounded. He used to say that every composer spends his life writing the same piece, and Mass represented the culmination of his ideas—of what he was.
What are the challenges of performing such a complex piece?
It can expand to whatever proportions you want—it can involve nonprofessionals, nonmusicians, dancers, a marching band. Bernstein was all about breaking down boundaries. After we play Carnegie Hall, we go up to the United Palace Theater in Washington Heights, and we’re going to incorporate kids from the neighborhood into the performance.
Critics felt that so much time spent with others’ music made it difficult for him to write his own. Do you buy that?
Bernstein was one of the great twentieth-century composers, and I’ll stand behind that. I’ve watched the public and critical reception change dramatically since his death. I remember at his 70th birthday, Stephen Sondheim rewrote “The Saga of Jenny”: “Poor Lenny, ten gifts too many.” In Japan, we went to see Kabuki theater, and I remember him somehow connecting that to Schumann’s Second Symphony! Another night, he played all the Beatles’ songs for me. He knew the lyrics, and he saw how they related to classical music.