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Weird and Wonderful Rossini

Oratorio Chorale
Unitarian Universalist Church
Brunswick
Mar. 3, 2019
by Christopher Hyde

Kudos to Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale for bringing to Maine one of the weirdest concoctions of the musical world—Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, written in 1863, after the composer had retired with honors from the opera world.

The original work, as heard on Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Brunswick, is scored for two pianos, harmonium, chorus and voice quartet. As its name implies, it was intended for performance in a the composer’s salon (which must have been very large), rather than a church, and it is by no means petite, lasting over an hour and a half.

My own opinion is that “solenelle” refers to the lightness of content. It is a traditional Mass, if assembled somewhat strangely, but includes lovely arias that Rossini wished he had used in operas, some very popular, if not to say vulgar, tunes and a piano score straight out of the Monty Python skit in which the pianist wanders through every coda and key change known to man without coming to a conclusion. Satie was also to parody conventional conclusions, but much later in time. Rossini may have played the piano accompaniment himself, which would do something to explain the musical jokes.

The Mass begins with a technique that I have detested ever since I was five: taking a phrase from the liturgy and worrying it forever, like a dog with a bone, until one wonders if the repeats will ever end.

The totally insane but amusing piano part was mightily executed by Scott Wheatley and Tina Davis, while a reed organ, well played by Ray Cornils, substituted for the harmonium. The reed organ becomes the voice of reason.

After the Kyrie and he Gloria, Rossini inserts four musical forms unrelated to the Mass, although (somewhat) following the text: a Terzettino, a Bass solo, sung by the tenor, a Duetto and a Solo marche militaire sung by the baritone.

The duet, between soprano Deborah Selig and counter-tenor Reginald Mobley, made sense of the latter’s request of Isaacson to perform the Peite Messe. It is stunningly beautiful.

The chorus, in the second of two grueling performances on the same day, was in good form, but choral writing was not Rossini’s strong point. He concentrated on the soloists, alone and in combination and awarded them the highlights. Tenor Matt Anderson and baritone Paul Max Tipton sang beautifully but showman Rossini liked to give the best parts to his divas.

The score is strange all the way through, almost as if the composer were afraid of being taken too seriously. An unnecessary accompaniment to the passing of the offering plate makes the piano behave seriously. The Sanctus is deeply felt, especially the “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and the accompaniment is reasonable in a soprano rendition of a non-traditional text by Thomas Aquinas. The counter-tenor and chorus have the last word, in a profound Agnus Dei.

The Petite Messe is a one key to the mystery of Rossini’s retirement at a relatively early age. He felt that he had said all that he wanted in the form of popular opera, he had plenty of money,  why not quit while you’re ahead? HIs works after retirement he regarded as the sins of old age and were intended for friends and acquaintances. God forbid they should compete with his operatic legacy. Rossini was a gourmet, and he wanted to devote his remaining years to gastronomy. Hence Tournedos Rossini.

Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at classbeat@netscape.net