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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
"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
Napoleon III, who was in power in 1867, when the piece was written,
observed that the work is "neither petite, nor solemn, nor
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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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