Saturday, February 26, 2011

Rossini on a Rainy Day: Petite Messe Solennelle with the New York Choral Society

Bon Dieu; la voilà terminée, cette pauvre petite messe. Est-ce bien de la musique sacrée que je viens de faire, ou bien de la sacré musique ? J'étais né pour l'opera buffa, tu le sais bien ! Peu de science, un peu de cœur, tout est là. Sois donc béni et accorde-moi le Paradis.  -- Gioachino Rossini, dedication to Petite Messe Solennelle

I was rescued from the doldrums of a rainy Friday by the generosity of Taminophile, who magnanimously made it known that he had a spare ticket to Rossini's Petite Messe at Lincoln Center.  I jumped at the chance, and had the very great pleasure of--finally!--meeting the charming Taminophile, discussing bel canto, and listening to Rossini! I have conscientiously not read his blog post on it yet, but you all should (not only is he charming, but he knows a lot more about Rossini than I do.)  My homework on the 1863 piece--which, although I'm familiar with movements from it, I don't think I'd previously heard in its entirety--was facilitated by this Philip Gossett article, so I could appreciate it without feeling too clueless.  And it was exquisitely lovely; I'm at a loss to know why it isn't more often performed, especially as Rossini's original call for twelve singers would seem to be well within the reach of any church with a well-developed music program.  There were, I admit, a few moments where I had to remind myself that repetition and embroidery are key hallmarks of the Rossini style, and I just needed to sit back and relax and bask in it.  And bask I did.

The Kyrie (go here for orchestra under Riccardo Chailly) I found exceptionally moving.  I had always, somehow, imagined Rossini as a cheerfully humanist, cheerfully agnostic fellow in the nineteenth-century mode, and to find this yearning, this pleading for what the soul most needs and least deserves, in his music, was very poignant to me.  The Gloria was equally gorgeous, and the voicing of it struck me as unusual and effective.    These were the most striking movements of the Mass to me, but the whole had a very nice musical and emotional architecture.  The Credo included "descendit de caelis" thrice repeated on descending intervals (I noticed that, Rossini,) and used alternation of soloists and chorus for lots of dramatic color.  I have yet to meet a Sanctus which didn't move me profoundly; Rossini's setting was intimate and tender, the awed human love to Bach's cosmic intensity. The "O Salutaris Hostia" was included, and was beautifully sung by Joyce El-Khoury.  And concluding with a mezzo solo on Agnus Dei - genius, Rossini.

As performed on Friday night, Rossini's original singers were expanded to a choir, but the possibly/probably original (see Gossett for the music history debates) two pianos and organ (organ substituted for harmonium) were present instead of an orchestra.  (Parenthetically, can you imagine, even given the rarefied privilege of being a nineteenth-century French countess, saying "Oh yes, do come over, we're having a dinner party and then Monsieur Rossini is giving a sacred work he's just written"?  Mind. Blown.)  The pianos were occupied by David Gifford (who carried most of the non-vocal music, and with expressive playing at that,) John F. Spencer, also distinguished by attentive precision, and the magnificently-named Malcolm J. Merriweather (!) bringing beautiful sounds out of the organ.  John Daly Goodwin directed the choir with obvious affection and engagement, and they responded in kind.  (Where can sopranos with a wobble be placed in a chorus to best disguise the same? This was a distraction.) As a group, however, they gave a committed and expressive performance.

The soloists were almost all unfamiliar to me.  Joyce El-Khoury, the soprano, was the exception, as I've heard her Frasquita at the Met, but it was nice to hear more of the individuality of her voice: rich and plummy in tone.  I sense, or at least hope for, Puccini heroines in her future.  Marjorie Elinor Dix has not only a splendidly Edwardian name, but also a beautiful mezzo voice.  At the outset, I thought that she might be dangerously close to flat, and something odd seemed to be happening to her vowels, but these perceived peculiarities soon vanished.  Her Agnus Dei was exquisite.  Tenor Michele Angelini has a beautiful lyric tone, but didn't seem fully comfortable; I wondered whether, although there was no announcement, he might be suffering under some indisposition.  Maybe it was just my own apprehension, but he seemed to steel himself for the Domine Deus. (As an aside, since Franco Corelli didn't take the final note on the high octave, I think it would be acceptable for others to follow in the footsteps of this perhaps least moderate of tenors.)  Daniel Mobbs, although a late substitute for the indisposed Brian Kontes, seemed the most relaxed, and ergo the most engaged and engaging, of the performers.  The pleasure of a beautiful bass voice in sacred music is... well, very special, to me, at least.  My theory that it is impossible to leave a Rossini performance not in a happy glow still stands.


  1. Thanks for your kind words. It was a pleasure meeting you and talking Rossini! I agree with your assessment almost completely, although I did say my impression of the tenor was that he was just young and cocky. (For the record, I've never heard any tenor take the high D at the end of Domine Deus.)

    As for the wobbly sopranos, I think we were never meant to be that close to the choir -- there were too many people on stage, and we were in the second row. I would like to have heard the concert from farther back in the hall--the sound would have come together more cohesively.

    We must hear concerts together again!

  2. @Taminophile Likewise! You may be right that nothing more serious than inexperience hampered the tenor. Interesting what you say about the high D... I wonder why they did put it in, if it's not a matter of tradition and audience expectation. Curious. Good point about the location and the choral sound, too. I too shall look forward to more shared listening! Hope the rest of your musical weekend was rewarding.

  3. thanks so much for the review. There's a performance of this coming up in Boston by Chorus pro Musica on the same day as Bach's Mass in B minor by the Cantata Singers and I was debating which one I should go to. I might just head to Rossini's just because it's so rarely performed as you said.

  4. I had no idea you were in Boston, tha dieu! Enjoy whichever you choose... this Rossini is very lovely, but that would be a difficult choice for me. The Bach B Minor is on my personal short list of pieces that are Beyond Sublime.

  5. @tahdieu The Cantata Singers also have a Friday 3/18/11 Bach B minor mass performance at 8pm. That way you can attend both performances. Another B minor mass performance is on Sat 3/19/11 at 2:30pm in the Gordan Chapel of Boston's Old South Church (chorus-2 per part, also singing solos).

  6. I should also note that I sing in Chorus pro Musica & that I am attending both the Friday Cantata Singers & the Saturday afternoon performance at Old South Church (right after the Rossini dress rehearsal).

  7. oops, i left a comment here yesterday but not sure what happened to it, perhaps i pressed the "cancel" button thinking it was "submit" :-).

    @Chorus pro Musica singer: thanks for the tip. i did sort out my schedule last week as well. Originally I wanted to also attend the Handel&Haydn Society concert of Beethoven 5th on either 18/20, hence my small complain about schedule :-). I can attend Bach on the 19, but i still want to hear the
    Cantata singers! soo many nice concerts, soo little time. bostix also offers 50% tix to all of these.

    @Lucy: yes, i moved back to Boston just last month! might run into you in the future when i make my way to the MET. have never been there, though your reviews such as Lucia di Lammermoor made me realize what I'm missing out :-)


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