Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas has been making waves ever since it was commissioned by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone in 2018 as part of the Benedict XVI Institute projects. Now, it will soon reach wider audiences, through Grammy-winning producer Blanton Alspaugh and the label Cappella Records, which will release a recording of the Mass on Sept. 23.
The premiere for Mass of the Americas in December 2018 celebrated the coincidence of two events: the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the celebration of the “Guadalupana,” the festive observance of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone told the Register that this juxtaposition was “a golden opportunity to lift up Our Lady as a unifier of God’s people, of all races and languages, from both sides of the Southern border. With all the tensions and divisions in society today, we need to look to our Blessed Mother. We all love her, and, like all mothers, her love unites us into one family of God. I conceived of the Mass of the Americas, then, as a unity Mass to Our Mother.”
A unity tour beginning in 2019, including stops in Tijuana, Houston, Dallas, Guelph (Canada) Allentown (New Jersey), New York, Washington D.C., Rome, and Chicago, emphasized the way in which the Mass, as composer La Rocca puts it, “honor[s] Our Lady under both titles, and draw[s] upon musical traditions from both the Old and New Worlds.”
Since then, the Mass has grown in other ways. When an opportunity arose in 2019 to employ the setting in a Tridentine Rite solemn pontifical Mass at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., La Rocca created a version to allow for use in the extraordinary form. And earlier this year, La Rocca rendered the Mass setting more accessible by composing a scaled-down version for parish choirs.
The release of the recording of Mass of the Americas is a new expansion and could bring the Mass to many non-Catholic listeners.
Producer Blanton Alspaugh, has won 11 Grammy Awards and been nominated for 26 He told the Register that Mass of the Americas fits within his usual bailiwick of classical choral orchestral works, including “other recordings of Masses and requiems and Stabat Maters.”
Alspaugh described the process of recording as involving a high degree of coordination, with the producer being essentially the artistic director of the project, working with the sound engineer, the conductor and usually the composer to ensure a high-quality recording.
“I have the score in front of me [during recording sessions],” Alspaugh said. “I’m listening; I’m making quick notes in the score about things that need to be fixed or improved, then speaking over what we call a talkback speaker. … The conductor and the ensemble can hear me, and I’ll say, ‘Maestro, we need to go back to letter A and improve these things.’” The producer’s task is to build enough good material during recording sessions to allow him to produce a coherent edit of the whole, which is then reviewed by the conductor, allowing a new edit to be mixed and mastered for delivery to the label.
Mass of the Americas might garner Alspaugh another Grammy nod, especially if early enthusiasm for the recording is strong. But fans of the work shouldn’t expect to see it receive a hat tip at the Grammy Awards telecast. The Grammys, awarded annually by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, include virtually all types and aspects of recording; but the annual telecast for popular music is abbreviated by comparison to the full livestream awards ceremony that precedes it. That being said, Alspaugh told the Register with a chuckle, “It’s the same set of Grammys.”
Mass of the Americas is, however, distinct even from most of the classical music at the Grammys by the fact that it is designed for use outside the concert hall. La Rocca told the Register that even before his 2009 return to the Catholic Church, he was composing sacred choral music for concerts. But the last and most important step in his more than 50 years of compositional formation, La Rocca explained, “came in the pews as I attended Mass and the quality of my internal participation continually deepened, conforming my musical nature to the ultimate expression of ‘the good, the true and the beautiful.’”
La Rocca is sensitive to liturgical norms throughout the Mass setting. He employs a violin in the processional, El Cantico del Alba, and later during an interval of meditation after the final blessing; but he treats most of the setting as a choral work. La Rocca says that this approach “is disciplined by [the] guidelines” on liturgy laid down in Pope St. Pius X’s 1903 encyclical Tra le Sollecitudini. “The Mass is a ritual of word and sacrament,” he explained, “which in its richest expression is entirely sung. Accompanying instruments — when used at all — must serve a supporting role and must not distract from or compete with the prayers of the Mass.”
Archbishop Cordileone also pointed to the liturgical restraint of Mass of the Americas. Observing the active participation first called for in Tra le Sollecitudini, he suggested that the setting stands apart from both concert works like Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis and from Gregorian chant, with its encouragement of congregational singing. “[B]y holding up polyphony as a prime example of other types of music suitable to the liturgical action,” he explained, “Vatican II acknowledges that there is also a place for choral music, which engages the people with active listening, as is the case when the word of God is proclaimed in the liturgical assembly.”
The compositional style of La Rocca’s choral music engages in part through its cultural attentiveness, for instance, by incorporating the song La Guadalupana and using Nahuatl, the Aztec language in which Our Lady spoke to St. Juan Diego, within a musical language steeped in tradition. As for that tradition itself, perhaps one of La Rocca’s most prominent nods to it occurs near the conclusion of his Ave Verum Corpus, where he makes a textual reference to William Byrd’s famous Ave Verum, albeit with a different arrangement of voices. “My ultimate points of reference,” La Rocca explained, “are the works of the great Renaissance composers — and I would place Byrd, Victoria, Guerrero, Lassus, etc., at the pinnacle of polyphonic sacred music. I see my work as an attempt to continue that body of work in the present day.”
The influence of historical music on Mass of the Americas — as well as its prominence in the Church’s liturgical documents — raises a question: Does America need a new Mass setting, as opposed to a rediscovery of preexisting sacred music?
Archbishop Cordileone points out that new music acknowledges historical developments in the Church, such as, in this case, the introduction of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Great art in any form,” he noted, “is appropriate and relatable to the culture of a particular time and place and reflects that culture, but also elevates it by bringing it into a continuity of tradition that has withstood the test of time and attained the status of classic beauty, giving it the quality of universality: beautiful in every age, culture and generation.”
Archbishop Cordileone also stressed the importance of a living tradition of sacred art and music.
“This is how it works with secular classical music: The great orchestras of the world continue to play the great symphonies of the great composers: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and so forth; but new compositions of the same genre are being made all the time, and the great orchestras of the world also play those. Likewise, for religious classical music, that is, sacred music: Our artists need to know we value their work, including a creative genius like Frank La Rocca, but also young artists.”
The historical craftsmanship of Mass of the Americas gives the setting a weightier feel than many modern American Massgoers are accustomed to. But Archbishop Cordileone says there are important reasons for employing polyphony. Recalling that “the purpose of the Mass is to worship God and to bring us into an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist,” he observed, “If that is happening for anyone in their current parish [with contemporary music] I don’t want to take that away. But our emptying pews suggest it is not happening for many people. … Every Mass is a miracle. When the outward form of the liturgy doesn’t correspond to the reality of the Mass, people have trouble understanding and experiencing Jesus Christ in the Mass.”
In the same vein, La Rocca drew attention to continuing a tradition of sacred music that is “Deo-centric” rather than “homo-centric.”
“Music at Mass is a ‘sacramental,’” La Rocca explained, “like vestments, incense, even church architecture — and its role is be a channel for the graces of the Mass and dispose the people to cooperate with them. Popular music styles with catchy rhythms and distracting modernist styles both draw attention to themselves and away from an interior experience of grace.”
The objectivity that Archbishop Cordileone and La Rocca described as necessary in judging the liturgical worth of music has its secular parallel in the objectivity that Alspaugh ascribed to himself and other directors. A producer need not feel profound emotions for every piece he produces, but he needs to engage with it artistically. “If the composer’s intentions are clear,” Alspaugh said, “if I can tell, for instance, that it is well made, even if it’s in a tonal language or style that … is not the thing I would listen to on my own, if I can grasp what the composer is trying to do, [then] I can help him do it.”
He described his task as “to help [the composer] in the recording process to get [his music] from the page into the ears of the audience.”
In the case of Mass of the Americas, Alspaugh expresses something more than artistic appreciation.
“[T]here’s joy in it,” he said. “[T]here is joy and serenity as well as drama and gravity and solemnity in it. I think it’s rich musically, it’s rich spiritually, and it’s rich culturally, because, of course, one of the aims that Frank had in writing it is to draw from all of the different streams of music in the Americas, so not just the United States, but especially Mexico, Latin America — the story of the way that the Church came to the Americas and spread in the Americas, which I think is represented in what Frank did in writing this Mass.”
Alspaugh sees Mass of the Americas as broad not only in its roots, but also potentially in its audience appeal.
Its core audience is Catholic believers, but “[t]here are believers in the Reformed churches and the Orthodox churches who also want to hear a Mass; they want to hear this music. … And then, if you keep expanding the circle, there are people who are not necessarily believers, but they love choral orchestral music; they love classical music. And people who’ve heard Mozart’s Requiem, or Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis or Haydn or Dvorak’s Stabat Mater — this list goes on and on. Music that reaches an audience that’s eager for it, and that audience goes well beyond a very narrow definition of who we would think is going to want to hear this piece.”
For Archbishop Cordileone, who originally envisioned the setting as “a fitting unity Mass for the faithful of San Francisco,” seeing the Mass grow is gratifying.
He originally hoped it might help draw the Hispanic and European Catholic communities in his own diocese closer together; later, during the international Marian unity tour, he saw the Mass “touc[h] a chord in people’s hearts.”
Now the recording is coming out, and newly ordained priests are using the setting to celebrate their first Masses, a development that Archbishop Cordileone had not imagined, but finds “fitting.”
La Rocca too hopes that his work will be welcomed by a wider audience, noting that “[o]ver the centuries this sacred music tradition has had broad appeal beyond the walls of the Church.” But first and foremost, La Rocca says, like the music of Palestrina, Bach, Vivaldi, Haydn and Bruckner, “[I]t was composed for the greater glory of God.”
To learn more or to order a CD or download of the Mass, go to MassoftheAmericas.org or https://benedictinstitute.org/mota-2/. You can also order directly from Cappella Records, or use an online retailer like Amazon or Apple Music.
To use the Mass of the Americas setting in your own parish or diocese, see https://benedictinstitute.org/larocca/ for a parish edition featuring chorus and organ only. For editions with full instrumental accompaniment, go to FrankLaRocca.com and send an email inquiry.
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