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Classical music and jazz inform a hopeful new mass by Jay Fluellen

Jay Fluellen, whose 'Mass for the Light Becoming' receives its premiere with the Main Line Symphony Orchestra.
courtesy of the artist
Jay Fluellen, whose 'Mass for the Light Becoming' receives its premiere with the Main Line Symphony Orchestra.

Jay Fluellen says that when The Main Line Symphony Orchestra reached out to commission a new work from him, his first inclination was to write a mass — a work based on the liturgy, commonly using five movements with Latin text. “I've written several masses before, and it’s a text that I'm comfortable with,” he tells WRTI, “but then, at the same time, I wanted to do something different.”

The resulting work, Mass for the Light Becoming, uses a range of orchestral textures and voices to bring to life texts from different traditions, expressing the wonder and the angst in our world today. Fluellen says that the piece, which will have its world premiere on Friday at the Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, also reflects his own spiritual journey.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Fluellen earned his bachelors, masters and doctorate in composition from Temple University. Since 1997, he’s served as co-minister of music at the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. A longtime music educator at both the high school and college level, he’s currently Concert Band and Jazz Ensemble Director at CAPA, the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, where he took time out of a busy rehearsal schedule this week to talk about his new Mass.

Jay Fluellen talks with Susan Lewis about his new mass

As a classically trained musician and composer who also loves jazz and gospel, Fluellen seeks to blend various influences in his work. “My music, inspired by the text, seeks to synthesize many different genres,” he says. “It’s organic to my language as a composer that all of these different elements come through when you hear the piece.”

Like the music, the texts of the Mass are informed by different traditions. Beginning with a haiku by Fluellen (“Being Alone”), it includes two parts of a traditional Mass: the Kyrie (“Lord have Mercy”) and Gloria (“Glory to God”), followed by another Fluellen haiku; words from a Jewish prayer, expressing the wonder of creation; and an African proverb that says simply, “When you pray, move your feet.” Fluellen says: “I was really happy to find these texts that I thought had a kind of universal quality to them, that can transcend divisions and barriers, and that became my intention.”

The final movement is “We, Light Becoming,” a poem in which he suggests that ancestral voices can remind us of the common humanity we share. “These ancestral voices help us recall that we've overcome things before,” he says, “and that recalling then becomes the fire, and that fire then becomes the light that we become.” He adds: “How do we find ways to be that light — that light of hope, that kind of love, in a world that can be very fractured? I feel music is a great vehicle for that, for spreading that message.”

The Main Line Symphony Orchestra will perform the world premiere of Jay Fluellen’s Mass For the Light Becoming on Friday, Feb. 23, at Bryn Mawr Presbyterian Church, along with works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff; tickets and more information.

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.