Wellington Youth Choir enlivens Rossini’s great Petite Messe

Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle – selections from, and pieces by Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Rheinberger and others

The Wellington Youth Choir conducted by Isaac Stone

Church of St Mary of the Angels

Friday 15 October, 7.30pm  

It’s usually a mistake not to go to concerts by our youth choirs and orchestras, because any lack of individual maturity or technical skill is completely subordinated, given a reasonably inspiring conductor, to the energy, enthusiasm and readiness to respond that young people can deliver.

The concert was a varied one, ranging from this rather extraordinary work by Rossini, through traditional choral sounds from Rachmaninov and Rheinberger to spirituals and solo performances.

Rossini’s liturgical essay was composed in the 1860s within five years of his death, an unexpected example of his remarkable sense of humour, both verbal and musical. Famously, it is neither short nor solemn, except for occasional moments (the solemnity, not the shortness).

The whole work takes over an hour and quarter and only about 25 minutes of it were sung here. The choice of sections was well made, offering a representative range of moods and styles. It was written for accompaniment by two pianos and harmonium but is also performed with orchestral accompaniment. One piano and discreet interjections from the organ were the rule here.

My first hearing of the whole thing was in rather memorable circumstances. In 1992 I ran into New Zealand percussionist/conductor Gary Brain near Place Victor Hugo in Paris – a singular enough chance – and he told me that he was to conduct his first major concert in a couple of days at a small festival on the Loire – comprising this Rossini work. I didn’t need encouragement and was on the train to Saint-Florent-le-vieil, between Angers and Nantes, to arrive in time for the concert. Gary was conducting the chorus of the Opéra-comique with a couple of pianists, in a small church that held 300 – 400 people – it was full. Having no other performances to compare it with, I was very ready to be delighted by the whole experience, and I was. Next evening over the phone I dictated a review to The Evening Post (pre-email).

It’s hard to convey in words the character of this work, so unorthodox and studiedly other than what any other famous composer would have dreamed of writing; a masterpiece of provocativeness, irreverence, tongue-in-cheek sincerity, music-hall vulgarity, jocularity, sobriety and finally passages of what had to sound like genuine religious feeling.

This was 21-year-old Isaac Stone’s first public outing as a conductor, and there seemed to be no sign of diffidence or nerves, such was the impression of his rapport with his singers and his mastery of the music. The writing for the choir varies greatly in style and in mood, sometimes transparent and delicate at other times with the full weight of an 18th century choral work. But there was never a hint of its actual time, when Europe’s choirs had become very large and grandeur and insistent piety were expected.

What Rossini does demonstrate, without ado, are the fruits of his thorough early training in counterpoint and fugue and these, juxtaposed with rhetorical phrases or light-spirited solos maintain a level of enjoyment, variety and sheer musical inventiveness that rarely left him. There were solo roles in most of the sections which were varied in quality but generally attractive and vigorous. Haydn-like in the Kyrie, after its dance-hall piano introduction; a brass-style fanfare starts the Gloria retreating to a calm section for three solo voices.

Again in the ‘Qui Tollis’ a piano introduction that suggests attention to Beethoven, is followed by duet between soprano and alto making step-wise intervallic moves and then an operatic sequence in thirds. An allegro choral opening of the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, becomes quite elaborate, weaving counterpoint that the choir managed admirably: there was skill and humour that led to a fine build-up of a typical Rossini crescendo that defied any categorisation of good or bad taste. 

The Credo for example alternated between sober polyphony and passages by a small ensemble; it was just one time for me to note the choir’s strong bass section (and the sometimes thin tenors).

In the Agnus Dei the piano makes dramatic play with bass figures before an alto solo enters with ‘Dona nobis pacem’, a long solo, leaving us with the enigma: how much of an agnostic was Rossini, as were most of the composers of great religious works in the 19th century.

The conductor and several choir members spoke about the music, but while they often conveyed engaging enthusiasm, they typically spoke so fast, with careless articulation, that I understood very little.

Given that, I rely on the names of accompanists as recorded in the programme, Evie Rainey and Louise Joblin – the first presumably at the piano, the second at the organ. The latter was a minor role, but the piano was well played, carefully adapted to the singing; it was both interesting and quite demanding.

The second half of the programme was a mixture: proof against boredom perhaps but not of even value or interest. They began with Vaughan Williams’s Antiphon from his Five Mystical Songs, a very powerful statement, involving a striking (and a bit too loud) piano introduction from Isaac Stone, to Aidan Gill’s singing.

Rheinberger’s Abendlied was a fine display of traditional late 19th century choral style, which prompted the thought that there’s hardly another Wellington choir that can produce such beautifully balanced, luminous, spirited singing and the same went for the more subdued Rachmaninov piece, ‘Bogoroditse devo’ (Rejoice O Virgin), from his Vespers, Op 37. 

Things went popular and variable thereafter, spirituals Elijah Rock and Deep River, both sung with total conviction; then an arrangement of ‘We shall not be moved’ by the conductor; though it seemed to engage the choir thoroughly, it sounded excessively varied in style and rhythm, modulated too much.

The final offering was ‘Let everything that hath breath’ which appeared to be a version of Psalm 96, ‘Sing unto the Lord a new song’,  whose jazzy character the choir tackled with the greatest gusto. And they sang ‘Ka Waiata’ beautifully as an encore in response to the warm applause from the audience.

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