The Lexington Chamber Chorale finishes singing a sweeping phrase from a Mass it is rehearsing, and rising from the front of the stage is the plinky sound ... of a banjo.
It almost seems reminiscent of a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon, the one in which a conductor arrives in hell and is ushered into a room full of banjo players.
But this is no joke.
For its season finale, the chorale on Saturday will present composer Carol Barnett's The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass, a 2006 piece that takes a choir singing in the traditional Mass form and backs it with bluegrass instrumentation: fiddle, banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass.
Mandolin player Jesse Wells played guitar in a performance of the work in Berea and says, "We had twice as many people the second night as the first. Word got around that it was a great, unique piece."
Chorale director Gary Anderson came across the piece last summer while looking through possible works to present. While he was mulling it over, he received a flier from Monroe Crossing, the bluegrass ensemble that played on the work's debut; it was offering to play it with any groups that wanted to present the Mass.
That was the direction Anderson was going — until he found out Monroe Crossing's performance fee was well outside the chorale's budget.
"I'm sure they're stunning," Anderson said, "but I also thought, there are a lot of bluegrass musicians in this area, too."
The group playing with the Lexington Chamber Chorale, billed as New Kentucky String Ticklers, is composed of several musicians who have played together frequently; its fiddler is Brice Farrar, associate concertmaster of the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra.
"This is not a step down in difficulty," Farrar says, referring to the classical material he usually tackles on violin.
Indeed, bluegrass offers different rhythms and styles.
"It really is the driving rhythms and the multimeters that make it work," says Anderson, who notes that as an ex perienced choral composer, Barnett does not tax the singers too much. "There are very complicated rhythms in this, which is a lot of fun. And they've nailed them. I won't say it's been perfect all the time, but they're doing really well."
It is also a change of pace for some of the instrumentalists who aren't used to having a choir behind them.
"That was pretty awesome," banjo player Brandon Bowlds says during a rehearsal break. "This is a new experience, working with a conductor, and it is a bit more work learning the score. But it's a great piece to be a part of."
It is a genre-bending work that should have interest for fans of bluegrass and of classical and liturgical music.
"It's a wonderful nod to the bluegrass tradition in the instrumentation," bassist Danny Cecil says. "But the singing of the choir, the work for the vocal ensemble is out of a church mode. I've done a lot of that kind of playing and singing, so it's a nice hybrid."
If you were going to present a bluegrass Mass anywhere, Lexington is a logical place.
Anderson says, "I thought, finally we are doing something that really makes sense here with what I love, which is choirs, and what is important to the Bluegrass area, which is bluegrass music."
IF YOU GO
'The World Beloved: A Bluegrass Mass'
What: The Lexington Chamber Chorale's performance of Carol Barnett's 2006 work for choir and bluegrass band
When: 7:30 p.m. April 20
Where: Central Baptist Church, 110 Wilson Downing Road
Tickets: $20 general public, $10 students. Available at the door or at Lexingtonchamberchorale.org.
Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog: copiousnotes.bloginky.com.