If you go
What: "The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass," featuring RapidGrass and the Boulder Chorale
When: 7:30 p.m., Saturday, March 18; 4 p.m., Sunday, March 19
Where: First United Methodist Church, 1421 Spruce Street, Boulder
More info: boulderchorale.org
The sacred space of a church holds a special kind of lure for Mark Morris.
Morris, the lead guitarist and vocalist for the Golden-based bluegrass outfit RapidGrass, isn't drawn by religious fervor or piety. Instead, it's the sound quality of a church that serves as the powerful bait; it's the unique resonance of the holy structures that seems to perfectly fit the bluegrass genre's call-and-response structures and communal dynamic.
The music thrives in sites designed for spiritual and congregational celebration.
"Churches are the best places to play bluegrass. The acoustics are usually the best," Morris said. "We've played churches in France; I have a little venue in Idaho Springs that's in an old church. They're our favorite place to play."
When the five members of RapidGrass head to Boulder's First Methodist Church this weekend, they'll offer audiences a brand of music that's a more traditional fit for the setting. The "Bluegrass Mass" concerts on March 18 and 19 will feature a collaboration between the folk ensemble and the Boulder Chorale. The Chorale's 110 singers will take the stage with RapidGrass to perform composer Carol Barnett's "The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass," a piece that fuses the ceremony of classical choral music with the down-home earnestness of bluegrass.
The fusion of formal choral music and improvisation-based folk music may seem like a stretch for casual listeners of either genres. But according to members of both the Boulder Chorale and RapidGrass, the marriage of the styles isn't such a dramatic intersection. Both forms of music have roots in the sacred traditions of the church; both rely on a combination of technical complexity and sheer emotional power for their effect.
"We like to play music that's technically daunting, but still very easy to listen to," said Morris, who's toured the world with RapidGrass and the acoustic outfit the Hickory Project. "We want the virtuosic elements of technique to come through, but in a song that more people can relate to."
Accessibility is also a goal of the Bolder Chorale. The ensemble's season features plenty in the way of traditional choral music, titles from the likes of Beethoven and Bach that any fan of old-world classical will recognize. But the organization has also worked to add titles to its lineup that incorporate other musical traditions. In 2016, the Chorale tackled a mass by jazz legend Dave Brubeck and performed a program of tangos and marimbas.
The driver behind that musical diversity is a desire to attract a broad audience and turn more listeners on to the appeal of carefully organized vocal music.
"I'm convinced that if we can get any kind of music into the right kind of classical concert, then the audience will enjoy it," said Ethan Hecht, executive director of the Boulder Chorale. Hecht added that the upcoming collaboration has the potential to open the classical repertoire to a whole new audience. "If we get bluegrass fans in the door for this show, maybe they'll be more likely to come next time we do Beethoven or Brahms."
The program will offer plenty of common ground for bluegrass purists. In addition to the performance of "Bluegrass Mass," the show will feature a solo set by RapidGrass.
"We're going to do a whole set of our music," Morris said, adding that the show will come a few months before the release of RapidGrass' new album. "I think the contrast between the choir music and our original music will definitely stand out and maybe draw some fans from audience members who haven't heard of us before."
The show will also feature performances of folk staples "Wayfaring Stranger" and "Will the Circle Be Unbroken?" by the Chorale. What's more, singer, songwriter, guitarist and Colorado Bluegrass Society Board Member Kevin Slick will deliver a lecture highlighting the roots of both genres and exploring the ties between the sacred choral music of the church and the community anthems that are the roots of bluegrass.
All of this music will put the featured composition in context. According to Vicki Burrichter, artistic director of the Boulder Chorale, Barnett's piece revels in the deepest traditions of both forms of music, while emphasizing their common ties.
"You cannot sing in a chorus without wishing to share in the beauty and ideas of some of the greatest minds who have ever lived, and without wanting to harmonize — literally and figuratively — with your neighbor," Burrichter said in a statement. "'The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass' combines this idea of a theology and a community based in equality and care for all with a glorious celebration of one of America's great indigenous art forms."
Community is at the heart of bluegrass, in its spirit and in its structure. As string players swap solos and licks, they're taking part in a conversation, one that encourages listeners to add their own two cents through dance moves and hoots and hollers. It's a celebratory music, one that thrives in a note of joy that's sure to hold an appeal for the singers in the Boulder Chorale.
"Our choir, for the most part, aren't professional musicians," Hecht said. "This is something they do because they get some joy and meaning out of it for their lives. We can go out and give a concert and have a good time. It doesn't have to be serious classical stuff all the time."