Bluegrass 57@7: The Music of Pepper Choplin, Joseph M. Martin, and Carol Barnett (DCINY) in ReviewDistinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) Bluegrass 57@7: The Music of Pepper Choplin, Joseph M. Martin, and Carol Barnett Distinguished Concerts Singers International, Monroe Crossing, Guest Artists Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall; New York, NY February 18, 2013
In a concert with the title “Bluegrass 57@7” (the 57 referring to 57th Street, the location of Carnegie Hall, and the 7 referring to the 7:00PM start time), Distinguished Concerts International New York (DCINY) presented a program dedicated to the Bluegrass genre and its various sub-genres. Featuring Bluegrass quintet Monroe Crossing, it had the makings of an interesting and educational evening.
The first half featured the vocal music of composers Pepper Choplin and Joseph M. Martin, with the able support of Monroe Crossing. I do believe the most accurate description of the selections presented would be Bluegrass Gospel. The music was mostly joyful and almost always tonally consonant. Indeed, no dodecaphonists were harmed in the making of this music. Each composer conducted his own works. Highlights of Mr. Choplin’s pieces were the anthem-like “Circle of Love”, featuring the talented vocalist Emily Drennan, and the electrically-charged energy of “Joy on the Mountain”. Mr. Martin’s “Coming Home” with soloist Sue Martin’s emotional vocals was touching. Then the ebullient Martin waved Choplin back to the stage, handing him the conductor’s baton as he took to the piano for his own “Great, Great Morning.” It had the feeling of a revival meeting. It brought the first half to an exuberant close.
The second half opened with selections from Monroe Crossing. Monroe Crossing takes its name as homage to the “father of Bluegrass” Bill Monroe and the fact that his music was the common thread that brought the group together (“we crossed paths through the music of Bill Monroe”). Mandolin player Matt Thompson regaled the audience with stories about the group and its members with both humor and humility. in what was probably a well-rehearsed part of Monroe Crossing’s regular performances. All showmanship and shtick aside, when this ensemble got down to the business of playing, they showed themselves to be not only committed to the art of Bluegrass, but also possessing some serious “chops” as well. The energy was infectious as they played four signature works. All four pieces were crowd pleasers, but the last called “Bullet Train” was just pure fun from start to finish, and the audience roared its approval.
The final work on the program, Carol Barnett’s The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, was composed with the talents of Monroe Crossing in mind. Matt Thompson told the audience about the challenges Monroe Crossing faced when first receiving their parts. Not all Bluegrass musicians read notated music, as the art of Bluegrass is largely improvisatory, so this “jumble of dots” was a challenge that was overcome by having each player learn his part by listening to a recorded version. After much hard work, the parts were mastered, and Monroe Crossing has performed this work about “40 times”, according to Thompson. Composer Carol Barnett stated, “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”. It was an interesting thought and a worthy goal, but one also might feel that neither classical nor bluegrass enthusiasts would be fully satisfied by the end result. The work is quite moving in sections, and the addition of Monroe Crossing added color, but it is open to debate how much “Bluegrass” was present amid some of the more sophisticated rhythms. Marisha Chamberlain’s libretto is quite provocative in sections, including an unconventional Credo, the thinly veiled 9/11/01 reference in the third verse of the ballad, and the feminization of God in the Conclusion. Conductor Nancy Menk was charged with the challenge of bringing this interesting concept to life, which she did with marked ability. Any reservations I might have had were of no concern to the audience, who responded with a prolonged standing ovation. The Gloria was repeated as an encore to the delight of the audience. Ms. Barnett and Ms. Chamberlain joined the conductor on stage for bows.