St. George's Choral Society, founded in 1817, will be presenting Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle at its 2nd Annual Summer Festival on June 14 at 7 PM at Church of the Incarnation, Madison Avenue and 35th Street, New York City. Laura Daly spoke with Dr. Matthew Lewis, Artistic Director of the group, about his commitment to this Festival and his choice of Rossini.
Laura Daly: What are your goals for SGCS’s Summer Festival?
Matthew Lewis: This festival started last summer, intended for the chorister that enjoys the NYC style summer sing, but with a bit more of a polished, finished performance. Last year we did music of Haydn, including his Lord Nelson Mass and Insanae et Vanae Curae, with orchestra. It was wonderful! We had a fine, balanced choir of about 40 singers with a core of professionals in the mix. Rehearsals moved at a nice, fast pace. We learned the music quite quickly, allowing us plenty of time to really work the pieces and fine-tune them. The end result was fantastic: a brilliant performance, and singers that were challenged and really enjoyed the two-week experience. And I, personally, loved it. I already had the Rossini in mind as we were planning Haydn last summer.
Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle is a delight to hear, and especially to sing. Anyone that has sung it before knows how rewarding it is. So, I wanted to make the four rehearsals challenging and fun, with a performance that would be a great payoff. I believe that is what is in store for our participants this summer.
LD: Can you tell us something about Rossini and his Petite Messe Solennelle? And why, for example, did he refer to this piece (among others he composed) as “sins of old age?”
ML: Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle is a late work of the composer, unique in many respects. Although it is operatic in style, it doesn't really contain many of the elements he is known for in his operas, most notably the lack of fast melismatic passages (fast notes -- runs, arpeggios, and so on).
Rossini mentioned that this was a sort of chamber piece, and I definitely hear that. The choir can be as large or small as desired -- it works either way. He later orchestrated it, but I have always had a preference for this more intimate, chamber-like setting. It almost sounds like salon music, if it weren't for some of the bigger, more enthusiastic sections.
The humor of the composer is well known, as is evidenced in most things he wrote. It comes across clearly in this Mass. As for the "sins of his old age," I think it was just his funny way of saying he was writing things other than opera, which had sustained his career for most of his life.
The scoring is unique as well: chorus and four soloists, accompanied by two pianos and harmonium. The second piano really just doubles the first piano, and only in a few climactic points. It can be done successfully without the second piano.
LD: Will you be using a harmonium for this concert?
ML: The harmonium is an instrument we have all probably seen, especially in antique shops. It is a pump organ, without a pedal board. These were very common in France in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Many organist composers, including Franck and Vierne, wrote collections of music for the harmonium. I feel that an accordion sounds more like a harmonium than a pipe organ, so that is what we are doing for this performance. We have the incredible William Schimmel, one of the most amazing accordionists I have ever heard!
LD: What is the experience of the SGCS Summer Festival like for a singer? How does it differ from the regular concert schedule of a choral group?
ML: The main difference is that we will work through the entire piece in four rehearsals, which occur in a two-week period. So, rehearsals are closer to the performance, therefore the intensity and momentum is greater. During the normal season, we prepare for a concert over a period of several months. Here we do it in a more concentrated format. Last summer, the singers loved this. They liked the challenge and the faster pace -- it kept people on their toes, but no one really felt overwhelmed. Professional singers in the chorus help with this, by aiding the choristers in learning their notes, as well as lending strong vocal technique to the ensemble. It is a really fun time, with the payoff of a real concert performance.
Our soloists are incredible for this one. As I mentioned, the wonderful William Schimmel is playing accordion, with Cathy Venable playing piano (we have a nine-foot Hamburg Steinway). The soloists are: Tami Petty, soprano; Elizabeth Mondragon, mezzo-soprano; Tommy Wazelle, tenor; Neil Netherly, bass-baritone.
I'm really looking forward to these two weeks in June!
LD: And so are we!
Tickets for this concert are $20 and can be purchased online (www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/concerts.html) or at the door the night of the performance.
Would you like to sing in this concert? Sign up prior to June 3 at www.stgeorgeschoralsociety.org/summer_festival.html.
Laura Daly is manager of marketing and artist relations for the St. George's Choral Society.