Jazz Choir Excited for Opportunity to Regionally Premiere "Mass In Blue"

Nebraska Wesleyan University’s Touch of Class Jazz Choir spent its spring break performing concerts in Iowa and Missouri.

The ensemble performed standard jazz favorites: The Way You Look Tonight; Summertime; Straighten Up and Fly Right.

The repertoire also included the regional premiere of Mass In Blue, an upbeat style of the Latin Mass. The piece’s six movements blend jazz grooves and strong choral writing with solo piano and soprano weaved throughout the work.

Now the jazz choir is ready to premiere the piece in Lincoln at a home concert on Friday, April 26.

“My initial reaction to the Mass In Blue was nothing short of awe,” said sophomore Aaron Miller of Omaha, who accompanies the ensemble on bass. “I was raised Catholic, so I was no stranger to the text of the standard mass. After hearing Mass In Blue I was left with massive goose bumps.”

The piece caught Boyd Bacon’s attention several years ago. Bacon, assistant professor of music, found the jazz band accompaniment most interesting but not practical for his small ensemble. The piece surfaced again this year with a version that included saxophone and bass. The piece also required high soprano voices. Bacon said this year’s combination of musical talent led him to consider performing it.

“I decided that all of these talents may not be available at the same time again, and now would be the time,” he said.

Looking into it further, Bacon learned Mass In Blue has only been performed in New York, California, and Canada.

The opportunity to premiere the piece regionally would provide a special experience for the students and their audiences.

“Premiering a piece is one of the most thrilling things you can do as a performer,” said saxophonist Joseph Schrotberger of Lincoln. “It is almost like you become part of a history story.”

The ensemble has spent months on the piece — both inside and outside of class. Soprano Laynee Woodward, a junior from Minden, has dedicated much of her private voice lessons to working on her solo.

“I want to make sure I have all the chromatic notes correct because the solo is very difficult,” she said. “However when the piece is all put together, it is very rewarding and fun to sing.”

Composer Will Todd wrote Mass In Blue. In its original performances, Todd used the musical talents of Russian-American conductor Elena Sharkova to perform the piece. Ironically, Sharkova conducted the Nebraska Wesleyan Honors Festival Choir in February. This provided the Touch of Class Jazz Choir with the opportunity to work with a professional musician who has performed Mass In Blue before large audiences.

“Ms. Sharkova brought such passion to the piece,” said Miller. “The biggest thing she taught me about the piece was just to feel it. Jazz is inherently about feeling, and I think setting a Latin mass in the jazz idiom opens up some more emotion to those of us who have heard the same mass for most of our lives.”

The Nebraska Wesleyan concert begins 7:30 p.m. in O’Donnell Auditorium, located at 50th Street and Huntington Ave. The concert is free and open to the public.

“I am so appreciative that Boyd would trust us with the level of difficulty of this piece,” said Woodward, who hopes the experience will be helpful when she applies to graduate school. “I am appreciative that Wesleyan gives so many experiences to the undergraduate program. This reason alone is why I chose this university.”

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The Touch of Class Jazz Choir will perform a regional premiere of "Mass In Blue" on April 26.