Making Mass merry

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Choral Art Society takes on the bluegrass Mass

PORTLAND — Those familiar with traditional classical Mass may think them heavy with religious tradition, a genre filled with the liturgical devotion of long-dead, white-wigged male composers.

But a bluegrass Mass? That’s “a horse of a different color.”

That, according to Choral Art Society Music Director Robert Russell, who programed “The World Beloved,” by Minnesota composer Carol Barnett for the group’s spring concert. The piece is a traditional Mass with a twist: it’s accompanied by a five-piece bluegrass band.

“To me, it really sounds like bluegrass music,” Russell said. “It adds a delightful little turn of phrase. … It’s just plain fun.”

Russell said the first time he heard a recording of the Mass, he knew immediately that “it was a keeper.” The second time he listened to it, he began planning this concert.

The bluegrass Mass text is more than a little different from a traditional Latin Mass. Librettist Marisha Chamberlain, also of Minnesota, took the story of Adam and Eve and threaded it throughout the Mass. However, to keep with the more upbeat style of bluegrass, Chamberlain changed the idea of original sin to that of original blessing.

The music itself is super-charged with bluegrass sound, the chorus singing in a folk style; fiddle, banjo and mandolin adding that all-important bluegrass twang.

The composer is quoted in the work’s program notes as wanting to bring back the melodies she remembered hearing at her grandparents’ house as a child, and marrying those with the traditional choral setting.

“My highest hope is that listeners coming from one tradition – classical or bluegrass – and perhaps dubious about the other, might discover something new and wonderful in the combination, as I have,” she said.

The rest of the concert is programmed around the idea of American spiritual songs, and will include several folk songs, as well as the Maine premier of a newly composed work by American composer Eric Whitacre.

The performance will feature Kelly Caulfield, a popular Broadway-style singer, as the soloist for the Mass. Caulfield will also perform several solo Broadway songs as part of the concert.

The concert is April 30 at 7:30 p.m. at Woodfords Congregational Church, 202 Woodford St., Portland. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door, and can be purchased on the group’s website, or at Starbird Music and Longfellow Books in Portland, Nonesuch Books in South Portland and the Book Review in Falmouth.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.