In this weekend’s American Songbook concert, the Vancouver USA Singers will combine their choral sound with that of bluegrass music. The 100-plus voices of the choir will team up with a bluegrass band to perform Carol Barnett’s “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass.”
“This is a gorgeous work with a distinctly American sound,” said Jana Hart, music director of the Vancouver USA Singers. “It’s not a real Catholic Mass. It combines some traditional sections like the Kyrie and the Gloria with the poetry of Marisha Chamberlain. The text mentions parts of American history like World War I and World War II, and its message is that even though we have suffered, we are blessed.”
Barnett was the composer-in-residence with the Dale Warland Singers from 1992 to 2001. She currently teaches at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn., and wrote “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass” in 2006.
“One of my retired friends who is a bluegrass player and a choral fanatic asked me to consider writing a piece for choir and bluegrass band,” said Barnett. “We got Philip Brunelle, who is the artistic director of VocalEssence ensemble, interested in performing it.
Everyone wanted something that is integrated rather than a polka Mass. That’s where you play polka music and run the words of the Mass through it. It’s a Midwest thing that some ethnic churches do. But the bluegrass Mass has an integrated feel. It’s really a fun piece that has been performed all over the United States.
According to Hart, the music of “A Bluegrass Mass” is complex, and her choir has worked overtime to learn the piece. The instrumental music for the bluegrass band is also very challenging. Hart said she feels fortunate to have a group that includes Jon Newton (fiddle), Clark Blanchard (bass), Neal Grandstaff (guitar), Michinobu “Mitch” Limori (banjo) and Brian Oberlin (mandolin).
“It took me three months to find the guys who can play this music,” Hart said. “A lot of bluegrass bands that I contacted begged off. A lot of the piece is improvised within a rhythmic framework. The meter changes all the time.”
This bluegrass band members add up to an all-star ensemble. Newton teaches music at Portland State University and sings with the Grace Brothers gospel quartet. Blanchard taught music in public schools for 27 years and plays in a bluegrass band called Mollybloom. Grandstaff is a bluegrass veteran who teaches at Mt. Hood Community College and Oregon State University.
Limori is adjunct professor of oboe at Willamette University, Corban University, George Fox University, University of Portland, and Lewis & Clark College, He also performs principal oboe in the Salem Chamber Orchestra and Washington Chamber Orchestra. Oberlin is the founder and director of the River of the West Mandolin Camp and the Oregon Mandolin Orchestra. He also tours with the acclaimed Ger Mandolin Orchestra.
At this concert, three teenagers will perform and also receive scholarships from the Vancouver USA Singers so they can continue their musical studies. The scholarship winners are Emily Bryan, Jana VanderPloeg and Ian McDaniel. Bryan is a senior at Vancouver School of Arts and Academics. VanderPloeg is a senior at Cedar Tree Classical Christian School. McDaniel is in his third year of singing with the Skyview High School vocal jazz choir.
The concert will also feature the Skyview High School choir under the direction of Philip Denton. Denton is a one-man dynamo at Skview, where he directs the orchestra, the choir, and coaches the theater program after school. The choir will sing Eric Whitacre’s “Leonardo Dreams of His Flying Machine,” which will feature choir members using hand percussion. Other numbers include “In Remembrance” by Eleanor Daley, Claude Debussy’s “Dieu! qu’il la fait bon regarder” (“God! What a vision she is”) and the “Ballad of Green Broom” by Benjamin Britten.
“These pieces show off a good contrast in styles,” said Denton. “And the kids are singing in Italian, French, and English. The Debussy piece may be the most difficult because you have to capture the French-ness of Debussy’s writing.”
The Vancouver USA Singers will join the Skyview choir and the bluegrass band to do “Boil Them Cabbage Down.” The bluegrass band will play instrumentals, and Vancouver USA Singers member Katie Fleishman will play the spoons.
“We will perform a piece by Leonard Bernstein, and we will end the concert with three spirituals that will be directed by my daughter Kristen Hart, who is the choir’s assistant conductor,” Jana Hart said.