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The Scarlet & Black

Bluegrass worship

By Meg Schmitt

Monroe Crossing will be taking to Grinnell’s Sebring-Lewis stage this Sunday at 2 p.m. with the Grinnell Singers and the Oratorio Society to bring new Bluegrass life to gospel worship.

The group performance will include their collaborative piece “The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass,” originally composed by Midwestern-native Carol Barnett with the poetic input of writer Marisha Chamberlain, and several of the band’s own works.

The show is co-sponsored by Public Events and the Music Department, and follows a course taught several years ago by John Rommereim, Music, which pursued the same unique creative flow of poetry into music composition achieved through “The World Beloved’’.

“Composer Carol Barnett and librettist Marisha Chamberlain have taken the basic framework of the Catholic mass—a text that has inspired composers for centuries—and reinterpreted it to create a remarkably fresh work,” said Rommereim in an email correspondence. “The choirs have had a wonderful time singing this music; it’s so finely crafted and tuneful.”

The cross-disciplinary nature of the work itself is reflected in the performers for this concert, which will feature the band Monroe Crossing alongside the students, faculty, staff and community members that make up the Grinnell Singers and Oratorio Society.

The group, Monroe Crossing, derived its name from a common love of Bill Monroe, famed bluegrass singer, and has been changing the tune of bluegrass ever since. All of the traditional musical trademarks of bluegrass, including mandolins, fiddles, banjos and bass come together in each of their performances.

Their unique stylings have earned them recognition on a variety of levels, ranging from their induction in the Minnesota Music Hall of Fame in 2007 to their participation in the International Bluegrass Music Association Convention. Having released over a dozen records, the group maintains a preeminent position on the bluegrass scene and has developed an affinity for mixing choral, bluegrass, and gospel together in deep crescendos of chant with gentle twangs of bluegrass.

The group’s rendition of “Kyrie”, a piece from “The World Beloved” series, intertwines soaring vocals from the choir with a backbone of strumming banjo and fading fiddles for an intriguingly grounded-yet-ethereal sound. The choral patterns give height to the melody, incorporating the spirituality of the religious chants, while the subtle strums of the homegrown banjo keep it rooted to the bluegrass tradition.

Each of the choral pieces is followed by an interlude of a ballad, which carries on throughout the performance in a continuing narrative thread, echoing the story-telling traditions of bluegrass. In performance, the solemnity of a mass is maintained, while renewing the incantations with an injection of energy from the mandolins and fiddles and steady rhythm from the banjo’s strumming and the bass.

That’s not to say the songs are of the tempo of a funeral march—the striking vocals and building strings create soulful and exciting pieces, filled to the brim with crisscrossing melodies and incantations in a dynamic exchange of instruments and voice. “Gloria” retains its religious roots while giving the chants a new twist with layers of mandolin and fiddle reinforcing gently rolling incantations.

This musical crossing between poetry and praise is free and open to all, and will be in Sebring-Lewis Concert Hall, Sunday at 2 p.m.

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