Coping with crisisThe Winston-Salem Symphony has been pushing the envelope for symphonic music for the past two years with the “Symphony Unbound” series, and the effects of the pandemic seem to have only strengthened its resolve. In the organization’s continuing efforts to blend orchestral music with new mediums, venues, and genres, the Winston-Salem Symphony presented “The World Beloved,” a program featuring Carol Barnett‘s Bluegrass Mass, in partnership with Hank, Pattie, and The Current, a Raleigh-based Bluegrass quintet. The performance exhibited the success of like-minded musicians from different genres partnering together to create something new. Recorded on April 17th and 18th at the R. J. Reynolds Memorial Auditorium in Winston-Salem, the program was evenly divided into two sections, both exploring the juxtaposition of Bluegrass with chamber music and choral styles.

The concert’s first half featured a string quartet from the WSS: violinists Rebecca Willie and Gregorio Midero, violist Jessica Ronnevik, and cellist Ryan Graebert. Playing side by side with the quartet were Hank (Smith), Pattie (Hopkins Kinlaw), and The Current (mandolin player Robert Thornhill, guitarist Billie Feather, and bassist Stevie Martinez). A series of Smith’s Preludes were played by the most unique string quintet I’ve seen or heard in a while – strings with added banjo (played by the composer).

Highlights of this concert portion included Hopkins Kinlaw’s “Pipop,” a freeing instrumental song that featured a balanced contrast between the fast paced banjo/mandolin melody and legato chords in the strings. Smith’s composition “Prelude in D” added a steady, easy-going banjo that traced the string melody. Interestingly, the piece was Bluegrass-derived, but maintained some idioms of chamber music expression. “Ring Road” contained the most striking arpeggios and rapid scale passages played on the mandolin; like a theme and variations, the song’s rhythmic and metric shifts became more and more complex to support the simple melody – and it looked so fun to play!

Barnett’s work The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass is a sacred reflection that uses both the vehicles of bluegrass and the Mass structure. The Winston-Salem Symphony Chorus, spread out in the auditorium rows, sang facing Hank, Pattie, and The Current onstage, with conductor Christopher Gilliam in between. Sung mostly in English, the piece features a full chorus on the liturgical-titled movements, sung in the ordinary Mass order. Interspersed between these movements, however, are portions of a “Ballad,” sung one or two sections at a time. These latter sections not only featured Hopkins Kinlaw’s solo vocals, but also several sonorous solos and duets from chorus members.

The uncommon instrumentation of this work is fascinating to witness – Hank, Pattie, and The Current formed a sort of “Bluegrass chameleon,” at times fitting within the texture and blending with the choral voices, at other times leading the way. The broader choral portions, full of rhythmic precision and soaring chords, were quite powerful. The WSS’s choristers kept the percussive homophonic lyrics of the opening Kyrie very crisp – a difficult feat with masks and distancing. The polyphonic sections were a bit muddy, but the choir’s performance of the Gloria was well blended, especially through the wide open and sometimes oddly dissonant intervals.

Towards the Bluegrass Mass’s conclusion, the WSS Chorus shone with the Agnus Dei – a haunting meditation sung a cappella with beautiful chords and a spellbinding decrescendo to the final “Dona nobis pacem” (it is one of the only two sections sung entirely in Latin). Similarly, Hopkins Kinlaw’s enthralling a cappella ballad from the opening movement returned to bring the Mass to a close.