Classical Mass meets bluegrass

Bluegrass and Mass are not two words I would generally expect to find in the same sentence, unless it were a contrast between two very different types of music. When I got the email last week announcing the start of rehearsals tonight for this fall’s concert, I wasn’t sure whether I was even interested in participating. While I prefer classical music, either to sing or to listen to, I try to keep an open mind about other styles of music. But a Bluegrass Mass?

What little I knew about Bluegrass was that it was a sub-genre of country music. And the idea of a “country” style Mass did not appeal to me. (Though I imagine the right composition, well-performed, might change my mind.) But I figured it couldn’t hurt to go the first night just to hear the piece. (Besides, they always serve cookies after the first rehearsal.)

We listened to four movements from the Mass, “The World Beloved,” and attempted to sing parts of them. We’ll need quite a few more singers than those who turned out tonight (let’s hope several people had schedule conflicts or just forgot), and a lot of work to learn some challenging harmonies and rhythms. But the music itself, I decided is exciting. I don’t know how well we can do it justice (it was written for a professional choral group, while ours is just a volunteer community group). But it’s worth trying.

Apparently the fusion of bluegrass and the Mass was a challenge for the composer also. And the result was a surprise to the bluegrass group Monroe Crossing as they began rehearsing the work for the world premiere in January 2007. They had expected “a bunch of nice Gospel songs in the bluegrass tradition.” Instead they encountered “a true Mass in the traditional sense.” Their guitarist points out, “One thing people should know is that it’s not a bluegrass Mass sung by a chorus. It’s more like classical music played on bluegrass instruments.”

More that just the upbeat music itself (Barnett wanted to produce “cheery sacred music – all too rare in a medium rife with staid and even lugubrious settings”), I particularly appreciate the application of creativity and obvious talent in bringing the classical Mass and bluegrass style music together. If it had not been done so well, I would not applaud it simply for being new. But listening to the recording of VocalEssence Ensemble Singers together with Monroe Crossing, I became excited about the possibilities ahead this fall.

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