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Modern Sacred Music at Its Best: the Mass of the Americas

And where sin abounded, grace did more abound…

Amidst unnecessary contentions and frequent bad news in the Church, it becomes both essential and gratifying to share good news. Enter Catholic composer Frank La Rocca and the forthcoming CD/album release of his luminous Mass of the Americas.

In recent years, San Francisco’s Benedict XVI Institute has pursued a number of high level efforts in sacred music and the arts, including collaborations with the Musica Sacra conference and the Sacred Music Project, numerous artistic and musical commissions, and numerous in-person events, along with a series of high-profile online meetings that became a lifeline to a number of Catholics during the Covid crisis.

Under a determined series of generous patrons led by Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, the BXVI Institute’s highest profile projects are the numerous mass commissions for their decorated composer-in-residence, Frank La Rocca. The first of these commissions, the Mass of the Americas, is a landscape-defining composition for SATB choir, organ, and orchestra. It was premiered at the Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco in 2019. Rare for a contemporary work, it has a long list of follow-up performances, including Tijuana, Houston, Allentown, NJ, Washington DC, New York, Rome, and the NAPA festival, as well as an encore in San Francisco. The Mass of the Americas has also earned a litany of praise from sacred music experts, with Professor Michael Linton calling it “The best piece of liturgical music for the Mass since Durufle,” and “Perhaps the most significant Catholic composition of our lifetime” by Dr. William Olbash. In the interest of transparency, it should be noted that my enthusiasm for the work is historically strong, having had the chance to document the world premiere in San Francisco, and also being privileged to cover the live EWTN broadcast here at OnePeterFive.

Now the organizers involved have taken the next ambitious (and very expensive) step of committing La Rocca’s Mass to a professional recording. The result is Frank La Rocca’s Mass of the Americas, performed by Benedict XVI Institute’s Choir and Orchestra, directed by renowned international conductor Richard Sparks. The album is being released through Capella Records, a boutique label run through the west coast choir Capella Romana, yet one which has already garnered Grammy nominations for their release of Benedict Sheehan’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, and critical acclaim for one of the most fascinating albums of choral music ever released: Lost Voices of Hagia Sophia: Medieval Byzantine Chant. Produced by the illustrious team of Grammy-winning Blanton Alspaugh, Mass of the Americas becomes a worthy member of this amazing lineup.

As I’ve profiled here at OnePeterFive, La Rocca’s story of latter-life conversion – and with it, a movement away from academic musical modernism to the search for a contemporary sacred idiom – has arguably lead him to become the Dean of American Catholic composers. La Rocca has forged an individual and powerful style: emotionally compressed yet often quiet, restrained and then powerfully moving, and entirely in congruence with the Church’s musical magisterium. It is a music which reveals how the man prays, and therefore becomes an accessible vehicle to enable deeper prayer in others. If the Church asks us to contemplate musically in chant while building our new works on this venerable aesthetic model, La Rocca’s musical output ably answers this intimidating call.

La Rocca’s Mass is also a successful example of inculturation done well. His core material for the Mass of the Americas include the Mexican sacred tunes La Guadalupana and Cantico del Alba, and yet the work is entirely congruent with Catholic tradition and at home in even the most traditional liturgy. One is perhaps reminded of Sir Roger Scruton’s late-in-life claim that western civilization is commendable precisely because it bears the theoretical and interpretive means to fairly assess and absorb the best of other cultures; La Rocca’s mass stands as a prime modern example of such accomplishments. It strikes me that the Mass of the Americas also draws a straight line to the stunning musical contributions of the Mexican Baroque, and era to which Pope Benedict XVI himself pointed as an example of inculturation done right.

As to the new album itself, it begins with La Rocca’s touching setting of the aforementioned folk tunes. Here the simple tolling of bells ushers in women’s voices singing the beautiful folk melody, intended to praise Mary at the dawn of the day. Dr. William Mahrt’s program notes inform us that the traditional song moves from simple praise to an expression of hell’s own fear of Our Lady, represented by a brief thickening of texture by La Rocca, all while the sweetness of the melody never fades. It is an elevating and joyful way to begin such a musical journey, while also placing in our ear some of the melodic material used to inspire the mass.

The mass ordinary setting begins with a solo traditional Kyrie intonation, growing into a thicker but accessible harmonic texture supported by an organ drone, arriving into a gently dissonant cadence, and then returning to the original simple intonation. The “Christe Eleison” ushers in a sweeter harmony supported by the strings, alternating as well as with the simple intonation. The return of the Kyrie will be familiar to the listener’s ears, at which point Frank brings in the fullness of the ensemble for the antiphonal response; here we are exposed to his own particular harmonic language: rich and sonorous, compressed emotion and deep spiritual yearning expressed with an almost perfect layering of strings. It is an orchestration clinic, where less is certainly more.

The Gloria is appropriately celebratory, alternating between sweetly intoned sections of chant-like melodies and more resonantly orchestrated responses. Here we also hear – lest the listener not be scared off by this inclusion – a liturgically appropriate use of classical guitar, assisting in chord fundamentals and acting as a member of the string section. One is reminded of Mahler’s very congruent approach to the instrument.

As the Mass was premiered on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Rocca composed a beautiful new Ave Maria for the offertory. One of the ways a listener can tell whether a composer is an actual believer is their treatment of text: the true believer will reveal their relationship with the spiritual rhythm and potency of the text, instead of merely setting it in a dramatic fashion like a libretto. An example herein is his setting of the words “fructus ventris tui, Iesus.” The standard approach is to set these words sweetly, as if to say “oh, Mary really loves her cute baby.” But La Rocca’s setting is more honest by my estimation: it brings in the presence of Our Lady of Sorrows at this moment, with the anticipated grief of Christ’s Passion expressed with a modulation followed by the tensest harmonies of the work, occurring in the very center of the piece. The result is a setting of the Incarnation itself, clear in its theological weight and import. By contrast, the sweetness you might expect in such a setting occurs later on the words “pray for us sinners,” as the intercession of Mary is one of the great joys of the Christian life. Some of the essentials of La Rocca’s compositional style can be heard here: he clearly is a man who sets his musical prayers with the same spiritual rhythm as he himself prays, and the result is a music which invites prayerful contemplation in return.

The Sanctus begins with sweetly drooping melodic statements in the soprano over a single high drone, with the tenors then ushering in a slow build-up which remains mournful until the singing of the words “gloria tua,” which briefly part the clouds for us. The work takes a sunnier turn beginning on “Benedictus,” but then builds into a more refined reflection of glory.

Readers may already be familiar with the Agnus Dei of the Mass of the Americas, as it was the first piece ever recorded by the Vos Omnes Virtual Choir, a project begun during the pandemic lockdowns. (In that case the video performance, assembled from singers in isolation across the country, was dedicated to the heroic priests and churchmen who actually kept the Faith accessible and going during those confused times.) In a mass of glorious musical moments, La Rocca’s Agnus Dei is perhaps the high point, providing an appropriate drama and pathos to lead us into the mystery of the Eucharist.

No higher praise in American sacred music can be found than the support of the great scholar and Church musician, Dr. William Mahrt. (Mahrt’s shepherding of the Church Music Association of America, education of countless young liturgical musicians, his lifetime of teaching at Stanford, and his seminal book The Musical Shape of the Liturgy, have had an unparalleled effect on the sustenance and rebirth of liturgical music through highly tumultuous times.) Writing of La Rocca’s style in the program notes, Mahrt states:

Each piece has a dynamic shape which underlines its liturgical purpose. This shape often consists of a move from simplicity to complexity and back, but with a distinctive and telling climax for each. La Rocca is an effective evangelist for the liturgical functions of music and for its use of modern styles. His music educates the listener by beginning in a moderately classical language and then progressing to purposefully dissonant climaxes which resolve again into more conventional harmonies. This is not his principal purpose; rather it is a means to an end to create expressive and elevating liturgical compositions.

Following the mass ordinary is a selection of sacred choral pieces setting traditional texts dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Included in this collection are four Marian antiphons, intended to be sung after the Mass according to the season. The collection begins with the Ave Verum Corpus, as imploring and pleading a setting of that text as has been composed. This musical prayer moves between simple ascending exposed lines to thicker harmonies and textures, all culminating dramatically on a repeated “In cruce pro homine.”

This is followed by La Rocca’s biggest departure and perhaps also his deepest meditation on the disc: the luminous, deeply felt, and pleasantly surprising Aue Maria. This is the Ave Maria in Nahuatl, the language which the Blessed Mother would have spoken to Juan Diego during the Guadalupe miracle. The combination of organ and marimba accompaniment allows the gently rolled notes of the latter instrument to blend smoothly with the organ pedal, while the voice soars in another of La Rocca’s signature soaring yet pleading chant-like melodies; a gentle solo violin later joins the organ in a canonic imitation. The following silence is punctuated vibrantly by rolling marimba, with voice and violin entering to weave a luminous texture, and organ somehow sneaking in behind this texture. It’s almost as if in this work – as intense as it is restrained, a veritable audiation of the soul in prayer –  La Rocca were meditating on the creation of the famous Tilma itself, the weaving and painting of a miraculous and iconic image, along with the weaving that would have taken place in the souls of Juan Diego and those first privy to the event. It is a remarkably striking work not only in how it effectively brings the Marimba into a traditional liturgical setting with such incredible ease, but also in its flexibility: look for it to become one of La Rocca’s most performed works in both liturgical and non-liturgical settings in the future.

The third of the antiphons, Salve Regina, enters joyfully with the melody familiar to the faithful, punctuated with bells and a bright and wide accompaniment in strings and organ; it is a satisfying meditation on the traditional chant, and a fitting compliment to the project. Both the Alma Redemptoris Mater and Ave Regina Caleorum begin with simple accompaniment textures, similarly punctuated gently and almost innocently by handbells. They are works of sweet and gentle praise, with La Rocca restrainedly using large forces to somehow convey the intimacy of a single soul’s Marian devotion.

The final work on the album, Regina Caeli, begins with a humble repeated pattern in the organ, also punctuated by gentle handbells. Onto this pregnant ostinato is crafted an increasingly rich tapestry, shifting into an effective modulation halfway through the work on the word “Alleluia.” There is something striking in the work’s simple settling onto a single concluding chord, a humble yet vibrant conclusion to an astounding collection of new music.

The nature of the recordings themselves is praiseworthy: they are of a very high fidelity, capturing expressive, polished and evocative performances. Recording engineer John Newton and Grammy award-winning producer Blanton Apslaugh opt to capture a clear and immediate sound, opting for lesser reliance on reverb than might be expected in such a recording. The result is an acoustic setting where both louder and softer passages are heard clearly, while louder sustained textures still have a satisfying luminosity to their reverberation; it is a difficult mix ably sustained, and the kind of recording which will reward those with quality playback systems.

The release of the physical product is very aesthetically pleasing, while even those who download the digital version should make sure to get their hands on the liner notes, as the great Dr. William Mahrt goes to great lengths to give even the most inexperienced listeners an inside tour of La Rocca’s work: it is essential reading.

For those looking to support the kind of efforts which can positively impact the Church and help rebuild her culture, you need look no further. Frank La Rocca’s compositional efforts, his generous shepherding of other American composers, and the significant philanthropic efforts of the BXVI Institute, are accomplishing something which would have seemed nearly impossible even a decade ago: a North American liturgical music renaissance.

***

The Benedict XVI Institute has launched a novel publicity strategy.  Everyone who pre-orders the MOTA CD (or streaming service) can enter a raffle. The winner will be invited to a special dinner with Archbishop Cordileone (who commissioned the Mass of the Americas) and composer Frank La Rocca at the Archbishop’s Residence. (Enter at: MassOfTheAmericas.org.)

The album may be pre-ordered here.

 

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