The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass brought out the best in both ensembles. The sophisticated choral sound and the jubilant bluegrass harmonies made the text come alive.
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
Be not put off by the notion of a bluegrass mass. Carol Barnett's version ranges from the simple to the difficult and requires an ensemble of the quality of VocalEssence to carry off. Much of the music is, in fact, bluegrass only in the sense that most numbers have a bluegrass accompaniment. The a capella choral sections, however, are often quite demanding and have little relationship to traditional bluegrass, or, even, the so-called "newgrass." The text, by Marisha Chamberlain, dips in and out of the traditional liturgical words and avoids the challenging ideas those words place before us. The music and words promote a positive, almost humanistic, view of the world; though St. Paul tells us that God is neither male nor female, the Deity here is androgynous—male at the beginning, female at the end.
With the exception of Billing's anthem, the remainder of the program consists of modern, generally religious, pieces, many commissioned by the ensemble. Most are not frightfully difficult and would make good additions to the repertoire of a reasonably skilled church choir. All are harmonically and rhythmically conservative, though the spiky rhythms of the piece by Aaron Jay Kernis will give pause for thought.
This ensemble is a mutation of Brunelle's better known Plymouth Music Series of Minneapolis and shares the same goal of presenting new and old, often American, choral music in first performances. I am struck, in fact, by how "American" its sound is. That is, Brunelle is not afraid to let his singers use a modest vibrato, which, on one hand, gives the total sound more body, but, on the other, makes the individual parts less distinct. The choice works for this repertoire, which is largely homophonic.
One of the interesting things about the CDs from this group is that they have a literally underlying pedagogical purpose. Built into this recording is another layer that, on one's computer, gives biographies of the composers, editions of the music, and words, and program notes on three Adobe PDF files.
"Expect the unexpected" is Philip Brunelle's long-standing motto; surely he and his forces live up to it in this unique, refreshing production featuring a Mass setting in bluegrass style. Brunelle's friend, Mike McCarthy, came up with the idea. Carol Barnett was chosen as the composer, and Marisha Chamberlain contributed the libretto.
The result is an intriguing cross-pollination of art music and bluegrasss. The text juxtaposes elements of the traditional Mass text, combinign the traditional Greek/Latin and modern English dialect, with personalized commentaries and expressions of faith. The Gloria, Credo, and Benedictus dispense with traditional texts altogether. Interposed between these movements are four ballad verses, each retelling a biblical story, such as Eve's partaking of the forbidden fruit. The Mass is prefaced and concluded by a refrain sung by unaccompanied solo soprano:
"They say God loved the World so dear,
He set aside His crown
And cloaked Himself in human shape;
They say that ... He came on down."
Barnett has clearly mastered the bluegrass idiom; her setting abounds with snappy rhythms, twangy harmonies, and authentic instrumentation, all informed by a thoroughly grounded musicianship. This is bluegrass with an air of sophistication. The ensemble Monroe Crossing (fiddle, mandolin, string bass, guitar, banjo) is a leading proponent of bluegrass, being the only bluegrass band to be nonimated as "Artist of the Year" by the Minnesota Music Academy In 2007, they were inducted into the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame. They perform the Mass with gusto and expertise. Philipo Brunelle's VocalEssence Ensemble Singers are equally celebrated in Minnesota and far beyond.
The 34 singers have demonstrated theri multifaceted artistry and vocal virtuosity, not only in the Bluegrass Mass, but also in ten short works by American composers recognized by the National Endowment of the Arts for their achievements. These include William Billings, Randall Thompson, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ned Rorem, William Bolcom, Brent Michael Davids, Eric Whitacre and Moses Hogan. These then pieces were originally recorded for American Public Media's radio broadcast Saint Paul Sunday.
This is vocal music making of the highest order. Expect to be delighted.
—The American Organist