The Chamber Choir of the Choral Society of Durham, under the direction of the masterful Rodney Wynkoop, provided the audience at Duke Chapel with a rare and sweet treat at this concert. Gioachino Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle is unique in the sacred music repertoire. Rossini described it as “the last of my péchés de vieillesse” (sins of old age). Supposedly, Napoleon characterized it as “neither little, nor solemn, nor particularly liturgical.” It contains music typical of his operas: beautifully melodic, bel-canto in style and sometimes whimsical. It also contains some remarkably skilled polyphonic writing. Avoiding the sentimental opulence of many nineteenth century religious works, it is refined and subtle music.  

Joining the chamber choir were some of the most outstanding local musical artists there are anywhere: soprano Susan Dunn, alto Jami Rhodes, tenor Wade Henderson, bass John Kramar, pianists David Heid (I) and Derison Duarte (II) and harmonium – Jane Lynch. Program notes, thoroughly researched and aimed at enhancing the understanding and enjoyment of the music, were prepared by Susan Dakin.

When Rossini retired from the opera theatre and essentially from composition in 1829, he was 38 years old. He had written 39 operas and was the most successful opera composer of all time up to then. During the rest of his life, he composed no more operas and scant other works, the most significant of which were two religious works: Stabat Mater (1832; completed in 1841) and the Petite Messe Solennelle which premiered in 1864. Composed specifically for 12 voices, two fortepianos and harmonium, it was written for the Countess Louise de Pillet-Will for the dedication of her private chapel.

The opening Kyrie features a somber-sweet melody sung against an accompaniment by the harmonium and a running figure in the pianos. The “Christe” portion is sung without accompaniment and introduces us to some of Rossini’s very fine counterpoint beautifully performed by the choir.

The Gloria is divided into six separate sections set in a variety of solo, ensemble and chorus combinations. The “Domine Deus” section is a florid operatic solo for the tenor and is surely the most commonly performed excerpt of the mass. Henderson was glorious in this rousing gem. The soprano and alto duet, “Qui tollis,” is a gentle romantic air sung in all its bel-canto glory by Dunn and Rhodes. The dramatic “Quoniam” was sung by Kramer and was a reminder of Rossini’s mastery of tonal color. The “Cum Sancto Spiritu” represents some of Rossini’s most powerful choral writing and was sung with impressive fervor. 

The Credo is in three divisions: “Credo in unum Deum,” “Crucifixus,” and “Et Resurrexit.” The emotional “Crucifixus” is given over to the soprano soloist while the outer sections were sung by the soloists and choir.  The “Et Resurrexit” was an especially dramatic piece of work with exceptional choral writing and performance.

“Preludio Religioso” was preceded and followed by a gentle harmonium ritornello, but the preludio itself was a piano treasure impressively performed by Heid. Sanctus is comprised of fanfare-like phrases sung by the soloist ensemble and answered with by gentle choral Benedictus. “O salutary Hestia,” is a Eucharistic hymn not usually used in a mass. It is a beautiful operatic solo and a treat to hear it sung by Dunn. The Angus Dei for soprano solo and chorus ends the mass. The introduction refers back to the beginning, and at the end it shifts from E minor to E major providing light and hope in the final “grant us peace.”

As with all concerts under the direction of Wynkoop it was a historically and musically informed performance with well-chosen soloists and accompanists and choral singing of outstanding quality. Petite Messe Solenelle is not often performed, and it was a delightful experience on this occasion.