Grace Chow, Christine Cheng Shing Ying, pianosDavid Francis Urrows, harmonium
Gioachino Rossini was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his day. He was phenomenally successful as an opera composer from an unusually early age, at a time when opera, especially in Italy, was mass entertainment - the nearest thing to both pop music and Broadway. Though his first opera was produced professionally when Rossini was 18, his first large-scale international triumphs came at 21, 1813, with Tancredi an L'italiana in Algeri, and his popularity continues unabated even after his early retirement from 'public' composition in 1892, following the Paris première of Guillaume Tell.
As with Lloyd Webber, Rossini's contemporaries were often jealous of his success, which eclipsed their own. Even Beethoven complained that his own works were not sufficiently well-received in Vienna only because Rossini was all the rage, and that Rossini's popularity was evidence of Viennese frivolity. They resented Rossini's seemingly unending and effortless supply of melodies, his superficially simple accompaniments: what they regarded as 'cheap' successes.
But the stress of producing hit after hit - as many as four per year - was great, and though composition made Rossini a wealthy man, he retired at 37 after his conquest of the august Paris Opera, passing the remainder of his life as a bon vivant, entertaining sumptuously, conversing convivially: the toast of Paris. No doubt the premature death, in 1848, of his overworked Italian successor, Gaetano Donizetti, only confirmed Rossini's decision to 'abdicate' his crown.
Rossini's retirement was not absolute, however. Throughout his later years he produced a variety of small-scale vocal and piano pieces, to which he gave the collective title Péchés de vieillesse (Sins of my old age) - trifles given informal performances at this circle's soirées. He also reemerged on two occasions with larger, sacred works, both composed as gifts for prominent friends, and at first prohibited by the composer from publication: the massive Stabat Mater in 1833 (revised for its first public performance in 1842), and the Petite Messe solennelle in 1863.
It is often noted that the Petite Messe solennelle is neither 'petite' nor particularly solemn. Its title, like that of the Péchés de vieillesse, is a typically Rossinian joke, witty but gentle: words that also characterize the wok itself, and, it would seem, the man. Despite its 'occasional' source (the consecration of the private domestic chapel of a Parisian nobleman), its personal nature is suggested by a note on the manuscript's title page: 'composed for my holiday in the country'. And at the end of the manuscript Rossini wrote:
"Dear God, there it is, finished, this poor little Mass. Is it really sacred music (musique sacrée) that I have made or is it merely abominable music (sacrée musique)? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know! A little skill, a little heart, that is all. So be blessed and admit me to Paradise."
Rossini lived in an era when it was normal to adapt woks to specific performance situations. New arias might be written for individual singers - by the original composer or by another; sections might be transposed to new keys, again to suit; star singers would interpolate their own cadenzas. Many of Mozart's so-called 'concert arias' were actually composed for such insertion, and Rossini himself re-used and re-arranged overtures and arias from one opera, or one version of an opera, to another. There are two examples of Rossini's own interpolations in the Petite Messe solennelle. Both the Offertorium (Prélude religieux) and O salutaris hostia (neither of which are movements normally included in a composed Mass, though such 'extra' movements were not uncommon among French nineteenth-century settings) are Péchés de vieillesse composed before the remainder of the work.
O salutaris hostia presents no special difficulties in its new context, but the Offertorium, which was inserted into the Mass in its original key of F-sharp minor, does. The movement that follows it - the Sanctus - is in C major (a remote key from F-sharp) and, as the Sanctus is to be sung a cappella (without accompaniment), finding the starting pitches can be difficult. Rossini himself obviously recognized this, as he composed a brief, rather trivial prelude to the Sanctus to help the choristers locate their notes. This is an awkward solution at best, and that moment is surely the weakest in the Mass, both musically and dramatically.
In order to smooth the transition from the Offertorium to the Sanctus, and to recreate the period practice of inserting newly-composed music into existing works, we invited Ip Kim-Ho to compose a piece that would be modern yet could fit well into Rossini's Petite Messe solennelle. There is ample precedent for this, both in music and in other arts, ranging from Alfred Schnittke's cadenza for Beethoven's Violin Concerto (Beethoven did not provide one himself) to the many contemporary additions and annexes to older public buildings, whereby the fines of modern architects have paid tribute to their predecessors.
Ip Kim-Ho is a Hong Kong composer whose interests have centered on the now-familiar 'East-West' juxtaposition and are now focused on the creation of a musical language that is both a visual and an aural analogue to the appearance of Chinese characters and the tones of Cantonese speech. His new work, 'Fa-Jai' (An Offering of Flowers) is not a setting of an independent text. Instead, the composer has taken Chinese words whose tones correspond to his musical lines and which, taken together, convey a general impression of abundance and beneficence. In accordance with Ip's concept of a 'gift offering' of flowers, the 'text' incorporates the English 'flowers' and the German 'Blumen', thereby (together with the Cantonese 'fa') paying homage to the three countries and three languages in which his musical education has taken place until now. Whereas Rossini's style is full of feeling but free of metaphor, Ip's is about metaphor, from which it derives its mood.
The Petite Messe solennelle's original instrumental complement was two pianos and a harmonium, the small pedal organ that was a common domestic instrument at the time. Rossini was eventually persuaded to orchestrate it, mainly out of certainty that if he didn't, someone else would alter it after his death. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that this version is the one Rossini preferred, and it is equally certain that his preference was for women's voices on the upper parts, not boys'. He appealed in vain for a papal dispensation to use women in the work's first performance (female voices were not then permitted in church services), an wrote in typical witty fashion, 'twelve singers of three sexes - men, women, and castrati - will be enough for its performance: that is, eight for the chorus, four for the solos, a total of twelve cherubim.' While we increase the vocal forces to suit the larger environment of concert-hall performance, our intention is to maintain the spirit of Rossini's conception by retaining his original instrumentation.
What's special about the repertoire... is the inclusion of a five-minute work in Rossini's mass that lasts more than an hour. This commissioned brief work, An Offering of Flowers [by Hong Kong composer Ip Kim Ho], offers a great contrast in style and contact. Apart from providing a transition or an interlude between [the] Offertorium and Sanctus, An Offering of Flowers makes [little] musical sense to the ear. However, both the old and the new works have their own special appeal; the juxtaposition forms a strong contrast, signifying the organizer's innovativeness in the repertoire design.
The first complete session was a demonstration talk with education purpose. The conductor and another narrator acted as hosts; they explained bilingually the background and compositional techniques of Rossini's work, with the choir and the piano supplying the demonstration. This session was lively and meaningful, and a precious first lesson in music appreciation for those among the audience who have never trained professionally in music.
About the singing... the general approach and interpretation were very good. Phrasing was graceful. Dynamics and speed were musically executed.
The "flower" piece took an "avant-garde" approach, no doubt; it should be performed in an unusual vocal technique. The Choir's singing of the piece was appealing to the ears, their rendition being natural and smooth. The choristers demonstrated a certain level of musicianship and a mastery of modern music. It is essential to attribute this to the effort of the conductor. The soloists' performance was superb, in particular from the soprano and the bass, whose tonal texture was graceful and rich. The piano accompanists were completely devoted. All of these elements contributed to the appeal of the whole performance.