Composing his way on up to the pearly gate


Rossini's `Mass' full of melodic riches

Music Column

April 15, 2003|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

If you scan the horizon in the days ahead, you should see two blue moons. Ordinarily, a performance of Gioacchino Rossini's Petite messe solennelle - Little Solemn Mass - comes around once in one of those moons, but the Baltimore area will soon get two of them.

Rossini was not a particularly religious man, but he wasn't about to take any chances. In 1864, at 72, four years before he died, he composed what he labeled "the last mortal sin of my old age" - the Petite messe solennelle. He attached a little note in French to the final page of the score:

"Dear God, this poor little Mass is now finished. Is it sacred music [musique sacree] I have written or damned music [sacree musique]? I was born for opera buffa, as you know well! A little knowledge, a little heart, that's all. So, be blessed and grant me Paradise." You just know he got in.

The Rossini wit also crept into his specifications for the number and type of performers the piece required ("Twelve singers of the three sexes - men, women and castrati"), as well as into the music itself. There are a couple of fugues that are almost profanely bouncy; just try to keep your foot still during the Cum Sancto Spiritu and Et vitam venturi sections. Not surprisingly, coming from the pen of a man who composed 39 operas, there are also some moments straight out of the opera house. But the instrumentation - just two pianos and harmonium (a pedal-operated keyboard) - is as un-operatic and unexpected as it is delectable. You couldn't find a more unlikely Mass.

The score was never really intended to be a part of any service, but, rather, for concert performance. It enjoyed considerable success with the select audience and press that heard the premiere in a private chapel. That success is easily understood, for this Little Solemn Mass overflows with melodic riches and expressive variety. The only thing little about it is the scale, with no orchestra and a chamber-sized chorus.

There certainly is Solemnity in this Mass, though without ever turning stuffy. The predominant mood really is joy, the joy of a master composer at work and a man thoroughly comfortable with his own, very personal approach to faith.

If you've never encountered this disarming piece, don't wait for another rare lunar alignment; if you're already a fan, you probably won't be able to resist catching both scheduled performances.

First up is the Concert Artists of Baltimore, conducted by Edward Polochick, at 8 p.m. April 26 at the Gordon Center for Performing Arts, Gwynnbrook Ave., Owings Mills. For ticket information, call 410-625-3525.

Randall S. Mullin leads the St. David's Singers and St. David's Boys' and Girls' Choirs in the Petite messe solennelle at 7 p.m. May 4 at St. David's Church, 4700 Roland Ave. For tickets, call 410-467-0476.

Hamelin recital

Last weekend's enticements included a downright stunning recital Friday night by French-Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin in the very intimate, acoustically inviting Gildenhorn Hall of the University of Maryland's Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park. Hamelin possesses formidable technical skills, more than a match for Leopold Godowsky's finger-busting transformations of Chopin's Etudes; in those for left hand alone, the pianist sounded like he had three hands going. More impressive still was how he made Godowsky's arrangements seem much more than virtuoso displays.

Hamelin is a born colorist at the keyboard, as he demonstrated in Schumann's Fantasiestucke, applying as many tonal shades as telling rhythmic fluctuations. The playing was magical. Same for Iberia by Albeniz, which he sculpted masterfully to unleash maximum atmosphere. The pianist also offered some of his own, expertly fashioned compositions from a collection called Con Intimissimo Sentimento; the bittersweet harmonies of berceuse (in tempore belli) - a "lullaby in time of war" - created a particularly haunting effect.

Rank this recital among the most memorable events of the season so far.

Opera Studio

La Tragedie de Carmen, Peter Brook's 1983 adaptation of Bizet's Carmen, packs a lot of action and emotion in about 75 minutes. It also chalks up a Baltimore-style body count by the last scene. Where the original opera softens many of the edges in the plot drawn from Prosper Merimee's novella, Brook's version revels in those edges. The result is not always effective, but there's no denying the theatricality. And a good deal of Bizet's indelible music is retained, so that's a decided plus.

The work provided an apt vehicle for members of the Baltimore Opera Studio Sunday evening at the Beth Tfiloh Community School. Director Patricia Stone had the young singers emoting forcefully in a production with updated costumes (the bullfighter Escamillo sported sunglasses and a leather jacket) and a set filled with what looked initially like yard-sale clutter, but turned into appropriately minimalist props.

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