Carol Barnett's The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass is an example of the possibilities that open up when two unlikely genres are combined. Working in conjunction with Raleigh's annual Wide Open Bluegrass Festival, Alfred E. Sturgis and the NC Master Chorale certainly did this crossover combination justice. Rather than performing in a typically formal atmosphere, the Chorale took the music straight to the public by performing in the main concourse area of the Raleigh Convention Center. This venue is "wide open" indeed. Although the area was somewhat noisy (even more than predicted, since more vendors and performers were all indoors, due to the rain), Sturgis and the Chorale chose this location on purpose because of the foot traffic. Even just the phrase "bluegrass mass" must have stirred up curiosity in some, because there was quite a large and interested crowd in front of the stairs where the Chorale stood.
In addition to the approximately 60 voices heard on this occasion, The World Beloved is scored for a five-piece bluegrass ensemble: banjo, fiddle, mandolin, guitar, and bass. It was fascinating to hear these instruments played alongside sacred Latin texts. However, not all the texts in this mass are Latin – the typical mass movements are punctuated with verses and refrains from a ballad with text by Marisha Chamberlain that, in this setting, sounds like a folk hymn. The mass opened and ended with the ballad refrain sung by Rachel Beck. This was reminiscent of a spoken or sung chant given by a priest to bookend a mass. Immediately after, the Chorale launched into imitative and punctuated phrases of "kyrie eleison." Interestingly, the instruments' accompaniment here is very dissonant compared to what is usually expected of either bluegrass music or masses.
Vocally, the Chorale clearly discerned where to use a sacred, more classical style of singing and where to sing in a tone more appropriate to folk and bluegrass music. In the ballads, solo Chorale members Carol Ingbretsen, Evelyn McCauley, Keith Lunday, Meredith Canington, David Wiehle, Jessica Bowern, and Megan Gray sang in clear, vibrato-less tones that fit well with the instruments. These solos give the mass an accessible and familiar feel, especially for people familiar with traditional Appalachian mountain ballads and hymns.
Unfortunately, the exact texts were sometimes difficult to hear and understand due to the high volume of people in the Convention Center, but it is quite notable that the Chorale's tone and harmonies soared over the crowd and were quite clearly audible. This was especially true in the Sanctus movement, an energetic and syncopated adaptation set to a more recognizable bluegrass accompaniment and chord progressions. Despite the Latin text and polyphony of intersecting melodic lines, this movement seemed catchy enough to sing along to.
The ninth movement, a setting of Agnus Dei, was especially beautiful; this featured soaring phrasing and the use of chromaticism that contrasted with some of the earlier movements. The texture was more mass-like than some sections and was mostly sung a cappella, with pauses between phrases of the text. The instrumental ensemble followed immediately after with an interlude called "Art Thou Weary?" Here, the melody (very similar to the vocal ballads heard before it) was played by the fiddle, with a slow triple-meter bass line and arpeggiated accompaniment in the banjo and mandolin.
Instead of the Latin benediction text, the mass concludes with an English version, saying "Blessing be upon you". This movement and the Chorale's expression especially communicated the soulful and sincere meaning of this text, and if it hadn't been clear from the beginning, it was obvious that all of the artists took great personal meaning and enjoyment from this work. Although this performance in the Convention Center was wonderful, it is intriguing to think about how this music had sounded during the Master Chorale's rehearsals, where the singers and instrumentalists were brought together in a more intimate atmosphere. It is clear that this work is one that has the power to unite a group of performers and the audience as well.
Editor's Note: There was an unusual confluence of bluegrass masses in Raleigh over this weekend as local choirs also assembled at Edenton Street UMC to perform Timothy Sharp’s High Lonesome Bluegrass Mass. For details, click here.