Le Bell Canto by June LeBell

From the Inside Out: Gloria Musicae and Rossini

Posted April 13, 2010 at 2:00 pm

by June LeBell

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Rossini. Except for a couple of his song cycles, I’ve always avoided him like the plague. It’s not that I don’t like his music; “The Barber of Seville” is fun. “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “La Cenerentola” have given me some of my favorite performances by Marilyn Horne and Cecilia Bartoli.

Just the overtures to these operas, even the ones I’ve never seen staged, are enough to send giggles, if not paroxysms of laughter from my throat. From “La gazza ladra” with its familiar chords to the now infamous “William Tell” Overture, there’s no doubt about the composer. Only Rossini could write such tune-filled, rollicking, frolicking froth.

But singing his works is something else. Rossini demands specific stylistic understanding, attention to dynamics that only Verdi would surpass in his “Requiem,” and coloratura, fioratura fireworks that make Mozart’s concert arias seem almost simple to sing.

So, of course, Gloria Musicae — the small chamber vocal ensemble I sing with — chose to perform one of Rossini’s most daunting and difficult liturgical works of all: “The Petite Messe solennelle.” Dr. Joseph Holt, our new, effervescent and prodigiously talented artistic director, ordered the music from Europe, no small feat in itself since we were presenting what turned out to be the world premiere of the new, Critical Edition of the work and, when he sent for it, it wasn’t yet printed. Great!


My husband, Ed Alley, remembered Philip Gossett, the scholar who put together this new Critical Edition, from Ed’s days as executive director of the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund for Music. The fact that they were both recipients of a Rockefeller grant back in 1967, didn’t hurt, either. So, Ed set out to find Dr. Gossett and ask for his help.

Isn’t the Internet amazing, we thought, as Gossett popped back up on Ed’s screen and the pair began a series of email communications that led the European publisher to send us the first printing of the new scores. And, eventually, they led to Gossett’s appearance here in Sarasota for our performance!

But there’s much more to this saga than a bunch of printed scores and a musicological treatise on Rossini. Yes — the work is different from almost anything else the composer left us because he wrote it 35 years after he’d put down his manuscript paper and pen. During that time, the Italian composer was traveling and, often residing in Paris. And, even though he didn’t have a CD player, radio or access to High Definition operas from the Met in his local movie theater, he managed to hear most of the music being written at the time by the likes of Verdi, Wagner, Meyerbeer, Weber, Auber and Liszt. And, like a great musical sponge,
Rossini absorbed these new and different sounds so that when he decided to go back to work — composing what he called “Sins of My Old Age” — his music took a turn from his past that brought him into a whole new sphere of musical organization, characterization and sounds.

Phillip Gossett writes, "No composer in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini. His contemporaries recognized him as the greatest Italian composer of his time."

What he wrote in his golden years, however, reached a whole new depth and level of musical importance. And the “Petite Messe solennelle,” which is neither petite nor always solemn, caused a furor among the composer’s contemporaries. Meyerbeer was so impressed by it he wrote a letter to Rossini:

“To Jupiter Rossini. Divine Master!” it began.

“I cannot allow the day to end without thanking you again for the enormous pleasure given me by the experience of twice hearing your latest sublime creation; may Heaven preserve you to a hundred so that you can procreate again some other, similar masterpiece, and may God grant me a like age to be able to hear and admire those new facets of your immortal genius”

He signed it, “Your constant admirer and old friend, G. Myerebeer. Paris, 15, March, 1864.”

(It’s interesting to note here that Meyerbeer died only two months later and Rossini never composed any more large works.)

But enough with the musicology: You can read this in books, online or even, heaven help us, look it up in Wikipedia, that tome of terrifyingly unfounded facts used too often by humanity-in-a-rush.

What was happening in our household cannot be told elsewhere. (I’m starting to sound like a 19th century Romantic …) Ed was doing what I love Ed to do: He was thinking of all the possibilities. So, along with contacting Gossett, he suddenly came up with a brain storm: The Critical Edition calls for two pianos and a harmonium. But there are lots of solo sections in this work and what would our new, talented conductor do during those passages? One doesn’t conduct a soloist and a pianist. So Ed thought, Why not have Joe, an amazingly talented pianist, play for the solos and conduct the rest of the work from the keyboard.

The stage setting, at that point became an interesting puzzle in logistics. But it was easily solved by adding a third grand piano, one that Joe would play and from which he’d conduct, while pianists one and two had grands of their own and the harmonium player navigated a key board. (The original, a “harmonicorde-Debain,” is no longer in existence and harmoniums, we found, were scarcer than hens teeth so Joe came up with an electronic instrument that had a “reed organ” stop that simulated the right sound.)

Rehearsals began in February. For two and a half hours each Monday, we met and made our way through the score which was much harder than it looked. There were dynamic markings over just about every measure, some ranging from quadruple “forte” to quadruple “piano” in the space of a couple of seconds.
This is not the stuff of musical simplicity. Runs had hairpin turns that made a drive through the Alps look like a road in the Sahara. Rossini’s fugues made Bach seem like child’s play. We were all shell shocked.

But slowly, we came to terms with the arduous demands of this score and soon we were making music, glorious music that seemed to range in style from the Baroque to 20th century chromaticism.

The Easter Sunday, the soloists arrived. Ed and I fed them, Joe and a couple of others. And, between the ham and the cheese cake, Joe took soprano Michelle Giglio (who just keeps getting better and better), the young Met Opera mezzo Leah Wool (whose glorious voice is rich and warm and delicious), and tenor Pablo Talamante and baritone Robert McDonald (both soloists with the prestigious U.S. Army Chorus) into our music room for the first complete run-through of the solo sections and quartets.

We have low ceilings and, sitting curled on the couch, score in hand, listening to these glorious voices, I thought our house was going to explode. The resonance and brilliance of their voices curled my toes and, for a few moments, my eyes glazed with tears as I realized I was witnessing what I’d always hoped to have: Great music and great musicians making music in my home. I said a prayer of thanks.

The next day was our concert. It went beautifully. Even I got most of the runs right. And the very receptive audience roundly and enthusiastically cheered Gloria Musicae, soloists, pianists and Joe. The review by Gayle Williams was an unqualified rave.

But, in retrospect, it’s not the performance or the afterglow that stay in my memory. It’s the making of the music with dear, talented friends of like minds. It’s sharing the trials, tribulations, fantasies and inspirations with a husband who is not only the love of my life, but also an extremely talented conductor and music administrator. (He was manager of the NY Philharmonic and conductor of the Boris Goldovsky Opera Theater, as well as the fabled Seventh Army Symphony — but that’s another story for another blog.)

I’m making music these days, perhaps as one of my many sins of my old age. Soon it may become time to hang up my vocal chords and concentrate on writing and speaking. But, as long as I can blend and add to a group as satisfying and gratifying as Gloria Musicae, I will be grateful for the talents I’ve been given and I’ll do my best to lend them to ensemble music-making. It’s one of the greatest joys on earth!

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