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Rossini's 'little Mass,' odd, little heard, gets a big presence here

Three performances of "Petite Messe Solennelle," this month and April.

Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of Choral Arts Philadelphia, which will present the Mass Saturday at St. Mark's Episcopal Church.
Matthew Glandorf, artistic director of Choral Arts Philadelphia, which will present the Mass Saturday at St. Mark's Episcopal Church.Read moreALEXANDER IZILIAEV

Like a blue moon, Rossini's seldom-heard, difficult-to-assemble Petite Messe Solennelle will appear here twice in a single month.

In a pure coincidence that could make high-tone jaws drop in any great music capital, the Mass will be sung by Choral Arts Philadelphia at 7 p.m. Saturday at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, then by the Philadelphia Singers chorus at 8 p.m. Feb. 18 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater.

"We could live another 100 years and never again hear this piece nine days apart," said Miles Cohen, artistic administrator for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, producer of the second concert. "But the performances aren't going to be much alike."

That's an understatement. Written for Parisian audiences in 1864, more than 30 years after the composer of The Barber of Seville retired from opera, the Petite Messe will be performed by Choral Arts with an ear for historical correctness: Artistic director Matthew Glandorf is coaching singers to use minimum vibrato and French-accented Latin. Soloists include early-music specialist Julianne Baird, who, in contrast to what she calls the "wall of sound" approach of modern Rossini singers, will sing the composer's famously extravagant runs aiming for a greater sense of incident.

In the Philadelphia Singers concert under David Hayes, the stars are at the keyboards: Ken Noda and Cecile Licad on piano with Michael Stairs on harmonium. The vocal soloists are likely to be more imposing, drawn as they are from the Metropolitan Opera Lindemann Young Artist Development Program.

Yet another Petite Messe Solennelle performance arrives April 24, by the Rutgers University Singers in Camden's Gordon Theater, with a strong populist bent. "The emotional variety of the piece is overwhelming, especially for students in Camden. They're coming from various backgrounds, many not exposed to classical music. But this particular piece talks to everyone," said Julia Zavadsky, who conducts at Rutgers, where she's an adjunct professor. She also conducted it as a Temple University student in 2000.

The piece surely has something for everybody. "Rossini was trying to sum up everything his compositional arts stood for," said Glandorf. "It's got some of his best arias but the choral writing is sometimes in the style of Palestrina. And he shows that he can write a grand Handelian-style fugue. It's one of his most profound works."

Yet Rossini was a musical comedian, with a fundamental buoyance that never left him, even during the clinical depression of his retirement years. Though grand in conception, the Messe was meant for such an intimate chapel or salon setting that Rossini himself acted as a page turner. Though he eventually orchestrated the piece on orders from his publisher, he preferred the more modest keyboard accompaniment.

"There are some really gorgeous things in it, but as a totality, it's odd," admitted conductor Hayes. "In Rossini's retirement, he amused himself by writing ditties. Then he set his mind to writing a liturgical work, so he decided to write fugues. And they're well worked out. But they go on a bit."

"There are times when you burst out laughing," says Glandorf. "Rossini seems to be winding down, and then he cranks it up one more time. There's a lot of joy in it."

During rehearsal on Tuesday, he stopped at a spot in the score and said, "This is sort of a Bugs Bunny moment."

Such incongruity isn't why the piece is seldom heard. The main stumbling block is the harmonium, a first cousin to the organ that was ubiquitous in the 19th century but is almost unknown in the 21st. Since the instrument was built to settle into Victorian homes and churches, some current owners don't like to let their instruments travel. At the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, Cohen searched four states before renting one from Kenneth Pratt in Charles Town, W. Va., for both the Choral Arts and Philadelphia Singers performances.

The instrument, a 1906 Estey made in Brattleboro, Vt., arrived amid light snow in a pickup truck, wrapped in eight blankets. "She's made of walnut on the outside and the best obtainable white pine, cherry, and spruce on the soundboard," Pratt said in an e-mail. "It sold for $875 at the time . . . that's $26,000 today."

Glandorf played a few chords. The sound is like nothing else - "an accordion with bass notes," said one chorus member.

And where, you might wonder, is Zavadsky getting her harmonium? She's evasive. Harmonium owners can be extremely sensitive; some won't rent their instruments if someone other than themselves will be playing.

"People are overcautious," Zavadsky says. "But the power it creates for the piece is amazing."