Tag Archives: Mobley

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

Oratorio Chorale Ends Season with Amazing Grace

Oratorio Chorale
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Brunswick
May 20, 2017
by Christopher Hyde

“Amazing Grace” is a simple pentatonic tune (it can be played on just the black keys of a piano), which has become a cliche at public funerals, but Emily Isaacson and the Oratorio Chorale, in Sunday’s concert at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, turned it into something magical, with drones, fugues of intermixed stanzas and more musical devices than you can shake a baton at.  It wasn’t a Negro Spiritual, but it sounded marvelous nonetheless.

Spirituals were at the heart of the program, presented in collaboration with the Portland Abyssinian Meeting House, which will be offering an Emancipation Celebration at St. Paul’s on June 10.

Isaacson programmed a varied selection of these works in roughly chronological order, from the darkest days of slavery through emancipation to the 20th Century. The Chorale was ably assisted by Reginald Mobley, countertenor, Mary Sullivan, soprano, Judith Casselberry, reader and Scott Wheatley, piano.

Casselberry’s readings, beginning with Frederick Douglass, were valuable in establishing context and significance, but sometimes difficult to understand. It would have been helpful to include them in the program.

Mary Sullivan’s solo in “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” with the chorale emulating a desolate wind, reminded me of Marian Anderson. She was equally effective in livelier spirituals.

Stealing the show, however, was countertenor Reginald Mobley. Countertenors are often featured in Baroque and earlier music, but using one as a soloist in spirituals is rather unusual. As usual with Isaacson’s innovative ideas, this one worked perfectly.

Mobley , although he sounded a little unsure of himself at first, soon came into his own, with marvelous renditions of “Were You There?” and “Steal Away.”  Toward the end, his “Precious Lord” was a prime example of what Gospel shout should be, full of perfectly timed musical ornaments, delivered in a powerful mezzo-soprano voice. with infectuous enthusiasm.

My favorite among the well-known songs by the chorale alone was a fast-paced, perfectly rendered version of “Ezekiel Saw de Wheel.”

If I had any quarrel at all with the concert, it would be with its very variety. The Gospel songs are good enough on their own without shifting choirs around, marching, alternating piano accompaniment with a cappella, and using (a few) gussied-up arrangements.

That said., it was a very satisfying coda to the Chorale’s outstanding 2016-2017 season.

(For more on the subject matter of this concert, see “Negro Spirituals” on this site.)

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