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This article was prepared by Elaine Strauss for the April 27, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Rossini as a Premonition of Pop and Jazz

The witty Gioachino Rossini claimed that his "Petite Messe Solennelle"

was written for three sexes – men, women, and castrati. Princeton Pro

Musica founder and music director Frances Fowler Slade says that he

was only joking, however, and that the score calls for the

conventional soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. Slade leads a performance

of the piece Sunday, May 1, at 4 p.m. in Princeton’s Richardson

Auditorium.

"Rossini’s sense of humor and the energy of the ‘Petite Messe’ are

infectious," Slade says in a telephone interview from her Skillman

home. Rossini’s sense of humor is embedded in the score. He labeled

the tempo for the "Credo" of the "Petite Messe" as "Allegro

christiano."

Napoleon III, who was in power in 1867, when the piece was written,

observed that the work is "neither petite, nor solemn, nor

particularly sacred."

Says Slade: "Just because the text is sacred, Rossini did not think

that the piece had to be solemn. There is one place where the chorus

is silent for about 15 minutes and the soloists sing. It sounds like

Edith Piaf. The piece has an undertone of popular music. It’s a

premonition of pop music and jazz. The ‘Petite Messe’ is a nice work

for spring; it’s not heavy."

Four vocal soloists join the 100-person Pro Musica ensemble for the

performance – soprano Jeanne Brown, mezzo-soprano Laura Brooks Rice,

tenor Scott McCoy, and bass-baritone Kevin Deas. Rice and McCoy are

members of the voice faculty at Westminster Choir College of Rider

University.

Commissioned for a private chapel in Paris, the piece was first

presented with an eight-voice chorus supporting the four soloists, and

it has been performed by choruses of every known size. .

Performing with the overwhelmingly volunteer Princeton Pro Musica are

a mere eight professionals, who act as musical section leaders. "Their

voices color the sound," Slade says.

Slade maintains Pro Musica’s musical standards by requiring yearly

auditions for members of the chorus. The group benefits from having

volunteer members who can sing more than one vocal part. "We have

trans-sectionals," Slade says, "baritones who can sing tenor and

tenors who can sing alto."

Rossini originally scored the "Petite Messe" for two pianos and

harmonium. Before his death he completed an alternative orchestral

version for the piece. Princeton Pro Musica uses the original

instrumentation at its May 1 concert. Pro Musica’s instrumental

performers are pianists Stephen Karr and Robert Ridgell, joined by

Eric Plutz, principal organist at Princeton University Chapel. "The

accompaniment is primarily rhythmic," says Slade, "so you don’t really

need an orchestra."

Developed in the first half of the 19th century, the harmonium is a

pipeless organ operated by pedals. "We’re bringing in an authentic

harmonium," Slade says. "It was built after 1878 and has 16 stops. You

keep the tone going by pumping with your feet, like you do with a

bicycle. You have to keep pumping steadily. The problem with playing

the instrument is a tendency to let your fingers get in synch with

your legs."

Slade tracked down the instrument in Yonkers, New York, after

collecting clues from an organist she knew in New York City, who had

done the piece. He advised her that some harmoniums are like a

Volkswagen and others are like a Mercedes. "We went after the

Mercedes," she says.

Calling the Rossini work "a cheerful piece that is also sophisticated

and urbane," Slade adds that Rossini asked God to forgive him for

writing it. His disclaimer, she says, reminded God that he was made

for writing comic opera.

Born in 1792, Rossini wrote "William Tell," his last opera, at age 37.

For a time he composed nothing and devoted himself to the good life.

He became known as a splendid host and a gourmet. Near the end of his

life he returned to composing. He called the small-scale pieces that

he wrote during that period "Sins of Old Age," and labeled the 1867

"Petite Messe" his final sin. He died in 1868 in Paris.

The "Petite Messe" is a new piece in Slade’s repertoire. Asked how she

learns a new work, Slade says, "Practice, practice, practice,"

reacting by focusing on rehearsals. "I start with an overview and go

through the whole thing. Then I break it into smaller and smaller

sections and build back up till I get the overview again."

"Rehearsals," Slade admits, "are the tip of the iceberg." Before she

confronts the performers, she says, "I study the score and learn the

structure, harmony, and organization of the piece. I listen to

recordings occasionally and go to the piano sometimes. Mostly I sit at

my desk. I hear it in my head."

Precocious musically, Slade’s exposure to performing began when she

was a toddler. She started singing in a church choir in her native

Atlanta at age two and a half. "I always sang in choirs until I

started Pro Musica," she says. Only the demands of conducting the

group, which she founded in 1979, kept her from participating vocally.

Born in 1949 and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Slade says that her

grandmothers were musical but her parents were not. "My father might

have been musical," she says, "but music was not encouraged in his

family. He was more musical than he got to develop. He really cared

about my recordings and listened to them all the time.

"I played piano all my life," Slade says. "I remember picking out a

tune on the piano and running over to a friend’s house to show her.

But I forgot by the time I got there. I taught myself to read music

from a beginning method book. I was older than I wished when I started

studying piano. My older sisters played piano. The teachers wouldn’t

take you until you were eight. I played my sisters’ pieces by ear."

As a youngster, Slade wanted to study violin but her mother

disapproved. "She didn’t want me to be one-sided," Slade explains.

"She didn’t want me to concentrate too much on music."

As an adult, Slade bought a violin and began learning to play. "I was

making good progress," she says. "I already knew so much, and I had a

good ear. But it took a lot of time, and I gradually let it go."

Slade earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Wellesley College in

Massachusetts in 1971. She earned a master’s degree in conducting from

Northwestern University School of Music in 1976, where she studied

with Margaret Hillis and served as her graduate assistant. From 1977

to 1980 she studied musicology at Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the

Arts.

"I always wanted to be both a choral and an orchestral conductor,"

Slade says. However, the period when she began her career was a

hostile one for women conductors. She says Hillis was a wonderful

conductor and founder of the Chicago Orchestra Chorus. "She wanted to

be an orchestral conductor, but was told that there was not a chance,

and was advised to come in through the back door," says Slade. "She

never got to be the orchestral conductor she would have liked to be.

She taught us that as women, we should establish ourselves as a choral

conductor, and then let the orchestra in."

Women no longer need to be surreptitious in pursuing a conducting

career. "The time of women conductors is coming," Slade says. "I was

born in 1949, and the time has not yet come for women conductors of my

generation. Many women orchestral conductors are coming along. They’re

in their 30s. But I have no complaints."

Slade was the wife of the late John Slade, who was educated as an

internist. He became known internationally as an expert on the

treatment of alcohol, tobacco, and drug addiction before his death in

2002. "I was pretty shaken up for about a year," says Slade, "and was

very grateful to have the music, which is such an important focus for

me."

Princeton Pro Musica is nearing the end of its 26th year. To celebrate

the first quarter century in 2004-’05, the group scheduled what Slade

calls "a glorious season." "You celebrate these anniversaries and then

you try to be as good as you can be. There is no difference between

the 25th or 26th or 27th year. The environment for the arts has not

been terrific. We’re proud for reaching a quarter of a century and

continuing on."

During the past decade, Princeton Pro Musica has modified its

organization. The staff has expanded to include three or four

part-time employees. The 12-member governing board has shifted from a

body consisting completely of chorus members to one with only two Pro

Musica singers. "The chorus members were more involved in day-to-day

affairs," Slade says. With board members predominantly from outside,

there is more concern with the community and fundraising.

Looking back over Princeton Pro Musica’s existence, Slade is conscious

of the musical highpoints in its history, singling out the Bach B

minor mass in 2000. She considers the Brahms Requiem as "a watermark

and, maybe, my very favorite work. We’ve done it four times, and we’ll

do it again next year."

Slade’s repertoire tends toward the encyclopedic. Several recent "B’s"

take their place beside the widely recognized Bach, Beethoven, and

Brahms. Milton Babbitt, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, and Dave

Brubeck are among the composers whose works Slade has conducted, along

with Dvorak, Handel, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart, and others.

Performing the Rossini "Petite Messe Solenelle" is a long delayed

project for Slade. "I have been thinking about it for years," she

says. "I’ve done so many major works, it finally seemed like the time

for it."

Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, Princeton Pro Musica,

Sunday, May 1, 4 p.m., Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University.

Soloists include Jeanne Brown, Laura Brooks Rice, Scott McCoy, and

Kevin Deas. $30 and $35. Pre-concert lecture at 3 p.m. 609-683-5122.


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