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Concert review: Toronto Mendelssohn Choir takes a luxuious view of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle

By John Terauds on February 9, 2013

Noel Edison leads the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists on Saturday afternoon (John Terauds iPhone photo).
Noel Edison conducts the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir and soloists on Saturday afternoon (John Terauds iPhone photo).

Gioachino Rossini would probably have barely recognized his Petite Messe Solennelle as the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir performed it on Saturday afternoon at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Music director Noel Edison decided to present the Petite Messe as originally written in 1863, accompanied by two keyboards instead of orchestra. But instead of a harmonium, the concert used the large and magnificent church organ alongside the grand piano.

Rossini had intended a couple of voices per part, with the soloists singing along with the chorus. Instead we heard a large proportion of the Victorian choral society-sized choir filling the building’s vast chancel.

With organist Andrew Adair making merry and free with the organ, James Bourne milking the elaborate piano part for every ounce of drama and the large choir doing its best, what emerged was an opulent, luxurious 90 minutes of music — something much more akin to grand opera than Rossini might have intended.

Granted, the Petite Messe is overtly operatic, and that’s the way Edison wanted it to sound — abetted by the church’s generous acoustics, which tend to blur the finer points of some musicmaking anyway.

The Mendelssohnians put the emphasis on Solennelle rather than Petite.

Rossini showed off his technical skills as a contrapuntalist, not just as an opera composer in this, his last large work. There is gorgeous fugal writing in several places, which was smudged by the grandness of this interpretation. But, on the other hand, the beautifully balanced, full-sounding choir was a treat from beginning to end.

The harmonium is in the score to provide a harmonic anchor. With low pedal pipes frequently giving the audience a satisfying foot massage, Adair’s organ did far more on Saturday afternoon, anchoring the music in a way even a full orchestra would not be able to.

I have a particular fondness for James Bourne, who can get far more out of a piano accompaniment than most pianists. And he had a wonderful opportunity to show off his colouring skills while also putting a fine point on Rossini’s clever ways with counterpoint during the offertory prelude section.

The vocal soloists were a bit uneven, not because of the quality of their singing, which was excellent, but in the level of intensity they brought to the performance.

Since everyone was being so operatic, it would have been nice to get the same from the soloists. Baritone Michael York and tenor Charles Davidson obliged. But the women, soprano Lesley Bouza and mezzo Jennifer Enns Modolo, both blessed with gorgeous instruments, sang with a touch too much poise and restraint, as if rendering an English oratorio rather than this piece of Italian melodrama.

But that’s just a quibble. This is rich, gorgeous music that deserves to be heard far more often — and we were lucky to hear it done so well.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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