For student, producing ‘Mass of the Americas’ blends a faith experience with music experienc

By Jim Davis

MIAMI (OSV News) — Many people post selfies from glamorous vacation spots. Richard Carrillo’s selfies were with yellowed, centuries-old sheet music.

The texts, at archives in Mexico City, touched him at two of his deepest levels. Going back to the 16th and 17th centuries, they’re the first-known compositions in the language of his Aztec ancestors — and they’re Catholic songs and prayers.

“Those are my roots! This is where it all started!” Carrillo said gleefully at St. John Neumann Church, where he directs the choir.

He’s doing more than posting pictures; he’s organizing a Mass that blends Aztec and European heritages. The “Mass of the Americas,” by composer Frank La Rocca, will have its Miami premiere the evening of Oct. 3 at Epiphany Church.

Carrillo plans to gather a 15-piece orchestra with 150 singers from St. Thomas University, the University of Miami and parishes around the archdiocese. But it will be a real worship service, with Father José Alvarez, pastor at Epiphany, as the celebrant.

That’s important to Carrillo, who will produce the Mass as part of a doctoral thesis for the University of Miami.

“To me, it’s about blending a faith experience with a music experience,” he told the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Miami Archdiocese. “If music helps me express my joy in the Eucharist, why not share it?”

The “Mass of the Americas” earns its name well. It’s a double tribute to Mary: both as Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, patroness of the United States, and as Our Lady of Guadalupe, patroness of Mexico and all the Americas.

First performed in 2018, the Mass blends classical music with traditional Mexican music – plus lyrics in Latin with some in Nahuatl, the indigenous language of the Aztec tribe.

An album version debuted in 2022 at Number 1 on the “Billboard” classical chart. The Mass has been part of an actual liturgy in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Rome, Washington and elsewhere. The Mass also has been broadcast over the EWTN network.

Carrillo said the success is partly in the interweaving of Old and New World musical elements.

“Aue Maria,” an Ave Maria in Nahuatl, includes organ, violin plus Aztec marimba. One section of the Mass has subtle chords of “La Guadalupana,” a Mexican folk song about Mary. Another has an orchestral arrangement of “Las Mañanitas,” which is traditionally sung for weddings, birthdays and other celebrations.

“It’s not a traditional Mass with some ethnic music,” Carrillo said. “If you know the (folk) melody, you’ll recognize it. If you don’t, you’ll just think it’s classical music.”

He noted that classical composers have often done the same over the centuries. Brahms, Mozart and Schubert incorporated folk melodies in their compositions. Antonin Dvorak and Aaron Copland did much the same in 20th century America.

If La Rocca’s piece is the right Mass for the times, Carrillo is the right man to conduct it. A cradle Catholic who grew up in San Antonio, he was born to an Aztec father and a Mexican mother of Spanish descent.

Carrillo attended the University of Houston, serving at the Neumann Center there and singing at the city’s cathedral. He then worked for three years with the St. Paul, Minnesota-based NET Ministries, leading a chorale in musical evangelization at parishes in several states. “NET” stands for National Evangelization Teams.

He also spent seven years as campus minister and choir director at Providence Academy in Minneapolis; then he earned a master’s degree in choral conducting at Missouri State University.

In 2021, he began studies with the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami. He’s now in his last year as a doctoral candidate in choral conducting there. He first heard the “Mass of the Americas” last fall on social media.

“I immediately fell in love,” he said. “It’s just beautiful music. There’s religious symbolism throughout. And the ‘Guadapana’ took me back to my childhood. All of those things were happening together.”

His doctoral research took him to Mexico City this summer. At the National Library there, he examined the documents La Rocca used for his Mass.

One text was the Valdez Codex from 1599, believed to be the first polyphonic sheet music in Nahuatl. Another was a version of Ave Maria, written by a priest in 1634 — the first known translation of traditional prayers into the Aztec tongue.

Carrillo even looked up an expert in Mexico, learning the history and pronunciation of Nahuatl in order to conduct the “Mass of the Americas.”

When he emailed La Rocca about his plans to produce the Mass in Miami, La Rocca was delighted. Carrillo himself embodies the fusion of faith, music and ethnic heritage in his Mass, in La Rocca’s view.

“Richard was, in some ways, the perfect audience for this piece,” said La Rocca, who lives in Claremont, California. He added that it was a “great honor” to have the composition connected with the respected Frost School.

“It legitimizes the work beyond its primary religious purpose — it legitimizes it as art,” La Rocca said. He added that he planned to attend the Miami presentation himself.

Carrillo said he hopes the more modern, diverse treatment of worship in “Mass of the Americas” will draw younger people. He says many people have given up the search for two of the three classical “transcendental” values — truth, goodness and beauty — meant to draw them to the divine.

“They believe truth is relative, and people don’t know what goodness is anymore,” Carrillo said sadly. “Beauty is the only one that most people still recognize. I want to bring the beauty of music to draw people closer to God, and closer to the Mass.”

In his own future, Carrillo would like to use his doctorate in one of two ways. One route would be to teach at a Catholic university. The other would be to become choral conductor at a cathedral.

Either way, the goal for him would be the same. “Music makes you stop and think, not just read a text. I want us to give our best product — not that people will say it was amazing, but that they can go deeper in prayer.”

For now, his main challenge in presenting the “Mass of the Americas” is monetary. He hasn’t raised all of the $35,000 that he said will be needed to pay instrumentalists and some singers, plus buying sheet music and the right to livestream the event. To that end, he started a GoFundMe account,

Jim Davis is a correspondent for the Florida Catholic, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Miami.

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