250 Performers Take To The Stage For Bernstein’s Mass

RNCM is bringing this incredible work to life in Manchester for the first time
March 6, 2023

The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and young singers from Chetham’s School of Music are preparing to bring one of the world’s most extraordinary musical events to audiences in Manchester for the first time. Conceived by one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians, Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), Bernstein’s Mass will be a monumental musical pageant that will be brought to life at Bridgewater Hall on Sunday 12 March featuring 250 young musicians alongside internationally recognised baritone William Dazeley. The elaborate spectacle pushes the boundaries of what it means to fuse musical worlds together while offering thought-provoking themes about society, the perfect piece for this pioneering conservatoire as it marks its 50th anniversary.

Bernstein’s Mass is an unforgettable experience in so many different ways, not least because of the way that it fuses together different genres: jazz, pop, rock, opera, folk and gospel all of which reflect Bernstein’s own eclectic career. Described by the Washington Post as “arguably the best thing Bernstein ever wrote” the pieces run from one harmonic progression to the next, with gripping rhythmic patterns carrying them forward. And in scale there is nothing quite like it, which is why watching it is a once in a lifetime opportunity. There will be a choir made up of 120 RNCM students, a choir of 32 children from Chetham’s School of Music, 20 students from RNCM’s School of Vocal Studies and Opera and there will be a full symphonic orchestra plus two electric guitars, a bass guitar, and two synthesizers.

Leonard Bernstein (Courtesy The Leonard Bernstein Office/Paul de Hueck)

Musical language is something that Bernstein was a master of, and just as in West Side Story, this work is full of surprises, variety and genres woven together in a distinctly unique way.  Preparing Bernstein’s Mass’ singers will be Stuart Overington; recognised for his specialism in working with young musicians, Stuart is Director of RNCM Chamber Choir and Symphony Chorus.

Stuart Overington, Director of RNCM Chamber Choir and Symphony Chorus says, “The sheer scale of Bernstein’s piece means that we are able to draw students from throughout the college as well as singers from our friends at Chetham's School of Music. Through a collaborative rehearsal process these massed forces are all working towards realising the grand vision of the Mass for this performance.” 

The history of Bernstein’s Mass is almost as fascinating as the piece itself; it was composed at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis so that it could be performed at the opening of the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, in 1971. Bernstein’s work was greatly admired by the late President; for his inaugural gala he composed and conducted a fanfare and he conducted the music at his funeral. However, the inaugural performance of Mass didn’t go ahead without controversy. Concerned that anti-Vietnam War messages would be secretly woven into the Latin lyrics the FBI were sent to observe the rehearsals and the content was deemed too risky for the then President, Richard Nixon, to attend for fear of any political embarrassment.

Manus Carey, Deputy Principal (Performance and Programmes) says, “The RNCM’s 50th anniversary presents the perfect opportunity to do something as bold and memorable as Bernstein’s Mass, a work not performed often due to the scale of forces needed, and indeed never performed before in Manchester. As a training ground for young musicians, at the RNCM we explore music across many different genres and Bernstein’s own musical voice that is a blend of so many diverse styles is a great way to celebrate this.

The RNCM Session Orchestra (Roscoe Rutter)

“Mass is a large-scale, joyous, zany, completely unique and rarely performed work, and given it’s far too large for the RNCM venues, taking it to the Bridgewater Hall will also enable us to bring it to a broader audience, and we look forward to creating a thoroughly engaging and exciting event.”

Sophie Iliaifar an RNCM student and one of the singers from the ‘street chorus’ says, "I am really looking forward to performing Bernstein's Mass!  It's such a fun piece to sing, and the music is so unpredictable! You think it's going to go in one direction and ends up going in the complete opposite!"

Bernstein’s Mass starts at 4pm on Sunday 12 March and will finish at approximately 6pm (there is no intermission). Tickets are priced at £9 (under 26s and students) and £18 (full) and can be booked HERE.

Header Image: RNCM Symphony Orchestra at Bridgewater Hall (Robin Clewley)