Playful sacred music is lovely as sung by Choral Arts Society

May 16, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Although some of my best friends say it isn't necessarily so, Rossini's sacred music always persuades me that nothing could be more fun than being a Roman Catholic.

Surely, there is nothing solemn about the composer's "Petite messe solonelle" (literally, "Small Solemn Mass"), the most genial contribution to the church liturgy in music history. In its simple instrumentation -- two pianos and a harmonium -- the tiny harmonium (or reed organ) often sounds like a hurdy-gurdy. And while there may be no dancing monkey, jokes abound: a tenor aria for "Domine Deus, Rex coelestis" that sounds like a football fight song; tempo indications such as "Allegro Christiano" ("fast and Christ-like"), all manner of teasing harmonies and rhythms and consistently joyful counterpoint that suggest the composer's belief that laughter is the best preventative for tears and that nothing is too serious for humor.

The work was performed Saturday evening in Kraushaar Auditorium at Goucher College by the Baltimore Choral Arts Society, music director Tom Hall, several soloists, pianists Jeffrey Chappell and Maurice Murphy and harmonium player James Houston. Actually, there is nothing small about the "Petite messe" -- not including intermission, it runs nearly 90 minutes -- and there was never a boring moment in Hall's fine performance.

The performance was threatened at the 11th hour by the withdrawal (because of illness) of soprano soloist Carmen Balthrop, but Hall was able to find two singers who were able to learn most of her music (the remaining soprano aria, "Crucifixus," was sung by mezzo-soprano soloist Deidra Palmour). Hall's conducting combined gutsy strength with good humor, and he consistently mined the depths of spirituality beneath the florid vocal lines and glorious melodic flow.

He was helped in this by some beautiful singing among the five members of his vocal "quartet." The most remarkable was Deidra Palmour, who was nothing less than magnificent in the "Crucifixus" and the concluding "Agnus Dei." Hers is a smoothly produced voice in which high notes ring out with conviction as well as beauty. Almost equally impressive was tenor Paul Austin Kelly, who was able to find the dignity inherent in the composer's operatic extravagance. Baritone Richard Byrne sang well, if with less sureness of intonation. Sopranos Rebecca Ocampo and Wendy Scheinberg acquitted themselves well in the music Balthrop would have sung -- although Scheinberg's lack of breath control in the cruelly demanding "O salutaris" inadvertently revealed the difference between the voice of a fine chorister and that of a genuine soloist.

In the major keyboard part, Chappell played with imagination and delicacy of feeling throughout, especially so in the devotional intensity of the "Prelude Religieux." Hall's fine chorus sang with accuracy of attacks and refinement and beauty of sound.

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