Claire Nowak

Sins of His Old Age

Bel Canto performs a mass by Rossini that’s spiritual, but written in the style of his popular operas.

By - Oct 15th, 2014 01:17 pm
Bel Canto

Bel Canto

Gioacchino Rossini’s mass, called “Petite Messe Solennelle,” is the composer’s last major work, which he once called a “mortal sin of my old age.” Rossini made a name for himself with his lively, comic operas written in a style known as opera buffa. When Count and Countess Pillet-Will commissioned him to compose a Catholic mass for the dedication of their new chapel in 1863, he decided to create a choral, spiritual work set in his signature operatic style.

Rossini created an interesting juxtaposition of sacred text and the style he used to write opera buffas, but used the approach to bring out the emotion behind the words that no other composers had ever done. One particular instance occurs in the last movement, the “Angus Dei.” The quietest, most intimate part of the mass, it is normally a let-down for masses performed in a concert setting since it ends on a somber note. However, Rossini turned it into something akin to an opera scene, casting the mezzo-soprano as a penitent singer.

“You hear this whole scene come to life with her outcry, ‘Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world,’ and then in the distance, you hear the final line of the ordinary of the mass, which is ‘dona nobis pacem, give to us peace,’” music director Richard Hynson explains. “You hear the choir as if it’s an offstage opera chorus singing, welcoming her to the church, welcoming her to salvation. At the end, you have this big climax at which she’s transformed from being a penitent sinner to someone who’s been saved.”

This is a rare case of the Bel Canto performing a work it has done before; Hynson seldom repeats pieces. However, he felt justified in bringing it back. The mass features the pianist, Hynson’s wife Michelle Hynson, who is celebrating her 25th anniversary with the chorus this year. He wanted to honor her, his assistant conductor, whom he calls his “severest critic” and “most trusted advisor.”

“I wanted to feature her in a work that showed off her prodigious pianistic abilities but also allowed her to show (what) an incredibly sensitive accompanist she is, because she accompanies all of these opera soloists we have coming in,” Hynson says.

The work also showcases how the musicians have grown since they first performed it in 2008. Not only has the chorus grown in size, but many current members have had significant vocal training. It also gives the chorus the opportunity to become more acquainted with the meaning behind the piece.

“I understand the piece a lot better the second time around and feel like I can bring a lot more depth to the interpretation,” Hynson says.

Still, Hynson doesn’t view the concert as any kind of benchmark for Bel Canto. In his eyes, the chorus is continually evolving and enhancing its talent to fulfill its ultimate purpose: using art to express inexplicable concepts like beauty, power and love that cannot be grasped with words alone.

“That is the nature of artists, to constantly improve themselves,” he says. “Every time we do a performance, the goal is for it to be not only an extraordinary, outstanding concert in its own right, but another step in the journey we’re taking as part of the human condition, to be better, to learn more, to grow together, to express to each other what’s important in the world and beyond the world.

“We musicians, we take the concreteness of the word, and we surround that with the music which brings it to emotional life.”

3 p.m. Oct. 19 at Shully’s Watermark in Thiensville. Tickets are $50, available online, and include a glass of wine and hors d’oeuvres before the performance.

Festival City Symphony’s “All Beethoven”

Straying from the composer’s most played compositions, Festival City Symphony will highlight two of Beethoven’s lesser-known works to open its 2014-2015 season Sunday.

Jeannie Yu

Jeannie Yu

The featured works include “Symphony No. 2” and the “Concerto for Piano, Violin and Cello,” also called Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto.” Nationally acclaimed pianist Jeannie Yu will return as a soloist in the concerto after performing Schumann’s “Piano Concerto” with the orchestra last year. Concertmaster Robin Petzold will perform the violin solo with principal cellist Stefan Kartman on his instrument.

While the virtuosic soloists have difficult parts, Festival City Symphony executive director Linda Jones, who also plays clarinet, says the orchestra has an important role in not overpowering those solo parts. This means obeying strict dynamic markings to keep the sound balanced.

In fact, she says, it means playing softer than the dynamic markings to get the right balance: “Piano should be pianissimo, and pianissimo should be softer than that.”

“Symphony No. 2” poses a similar musical challenge for the group, one common for any of Beethoven’s pieces. Since he was a transitional composer from the classical period to the romantic period, his style combines characteristics from both eras.

“You need to play Beethoven, like Mozart, extremely precisely,” Jones says. “There’s no place to hide. There are not sections where you can just blast (your sound) … There’s always the issue, even in (Symphony No. 2) without soloists, the issue of balance and being very precise in articulation… and following the phrasing with the help of the conductor so that it’s interesting.”

Keeping each part clean and on beat puts pressure on conductor Monte Perkins as well as the individual musicians. But Jones is confident they can do the composer justice and play with the energy he envisioned.

“People say that Beethoven’s easier to play than a contemporary composer who asks you to do really extreme things on your instrument,” Jones says. But there’s still a big challenge the composer presents: “he’s asking you to be extremely precise and clear and still have life in it.”

3 p.m. Oct. 19, Pabst Theatre. Tickets are $14 for adults and $8 for children, seniors and students. They are available online or by calling 414-286-3205.

Tchaikovsky’s Fifth by MSO

Led by associate conductor Francesco Lecce-Chong, the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra showcases Tchaikovsky’s intense Fifth Symphony, one of the composer’s most well-known works. Guest pianist Christopher Taylor will solo in the Piano Concerto of Lutosławski as an opener.

11:15 a.m. Oct. 17 and 8 p.m. Oct. 18 at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets range form $21.50 – $81.50 and are available online or by calling 414-291-7605.

Fall Feast by Concord Chamber Orchestra

Embracing the crisp, autumn air gradually settling in for the season, the Concord Chamber Orchestra channels Viennese sounds for its “Fall Feast” season opener. Selections include Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture, Brahms’ Serenade No. 1 and Dan Lawitts’ Harp Concerto with a solo by Lauren Finn.

8 p.m. Oct. 18 at St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church in Wauwatosa. Tickets are $18 for adults and $12 for students and seniors, available online.

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