IN ONE of his famous television broadcasts, from January 1959, Leonard Bernstein makes some characteristically sharp observations about “Jazz in Serious Music”. A decade or so later, however, he may have taken issue with himself that its influence on orchestral music represented some sort of triumph of exoticism and modernism over the Germanic symphonic model. The 40-year-old Bernstein reasoned that the journey of music from Mozart to Mahler had been one of exponential growth in the size of the orchestra, the length of works and the weight of emotional statements. “How much bigger could music get?” he said. “It had to stop somewhere or bust. The only remedy seemed to be throw it all overboard and start a new development, find fresh material, new devices.”

If that was an argument against scale in composition, it was advice Bernstein failed to heed himself. Bernstein’s MASS, which the RSNO will perform with the assistance of players and singers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland on May 5 is an epic work for huge forces that was commissioned by Jackie Kennedy for the opening of the Kennedy Center of the Arts in Washington in September 1971. It was controversial before it was even performed, clearly part of the growing opposition to the war in Vietnam, boycotted by President Richard Nixon and part of the reason why the FBI had a fat file on Leonard Bernstein. The resonances that attend its revival as part of the RSNO’s marking of the centenary of Bernstein’s birth could hardly have become more obvious in the past week.

Although the work had its European premiere in Vienna just two years later, when student musicians from Yale were conducted by John Mauceri – a student of Bernstein who would later be music director of Scottish Opera – it had to wait until 2012 for its first performance at the BBC Proms with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales under the baton of Kristjan Jarvi, who also conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra earlier that year. The RSNO’s Scottish premiere borrows a number of elements from that Australian concert: the conductor, baritone Jubilant Sykes in the central role of the Celebrant and the Absolute Trio as the onstage jazz/rock band. Add to the mix the RSNO Chorus, RSNO Junior Chorus, a trio of counter-tenors and a boy soprano soloist and it should be clear that Bernstein was not thinking small. The format of the 32-movement piece is borrowed from the Latin Tridentine Mass, on to which the composer grafted the practice of debating with the deity that he knew form his own Jewish upbringing, as well as a host of hip, groovy 1971 elements. Paul Simon was asked to help with the libretto, but in the end contributed only one small element while the bulk of the words are the work of Stephen Schwarz, then known for Godspell and now best identified as the creator of the musical theatre sensation that is Wicked.

The most recent UK performance of Bernstein’s MASS, at London’s Royal Festival Hall at the start of this month, had Marin Alsop (another Bernstein protégé) returning to conduct the staging she had worked on with Jude Kelly ten years previously. While even his most devoted disciples would not rate it with Bernstein’s very finest works, it does seem as if the relevance of MASS has come round again, which, while concerning, makes it well worth hearing.

Although not from 1968, it is part of the continuum that began in that revolutionary year – it took until 1971, it has been argued, for the counterculture of the late 1960s to produce the great classic albums of rock. The legacy of 50 years ago is very much in the air, although it was somewhat opaque in the Conservatoire’s last collaborative project, Last Futures at Tramway with the BBC SSO. Whatever the students were supposedly saying about 1968 in that show eluded me, but I have high hopes of the spirit of the era will be more apparent in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall a fortnight today.

It is the main course in a whole feast of Bernstein that the RSNO has upcoming, including the Chichester Psalms and music from West Side Story in the concerts at the end of the coming week.