At the age of 40, a little more than halfway through his life, Rossini gave up a phenomenally successful career as an opera composer and, over the next 37 years, produced only two more works. The second, the "Petite Messe Solennelle," composed four years before his death, is pure Rossini, but it is Rossini in a devotional rather than a dramatic mode, moving reverently and with serious intent. The text is a source of contemplation not of drama, and the style is often more French than Italian.
The Norman Scribner Choir performed the mass at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Saturday in its original scoring for chorus, a quartet of soloists, two pianos and harmonium, and while it was interesting to hear the piece without the orchestral trappings that accompany Rossini's own revision, several things were immediately evident. First, Rossini may have composed the score for the keyboard (and perhaps on it), but he was thinking orchestrally; and second, without the orchestral dimension that Rossini exploited so well in his operas, the piece seemed to go very slowly.
Scribner, who conducted his excellent small choir from the piano, assembled a splendid group of soloists for this performance. Soprano Alessandra Marc had the lion's share of the work and sang with a lovely sense of legato line. Contralto Beverly Benso, tenor Michael Forest and bass Gordon Hawkins did well in their solo assignments but were particularly impressive in the ensemble movements. The finest music of the mass resides in these solo lines, and there was a sense throughout that this was well understood.
The chorus, which spent a lot of time singing sequences transposed up and down the scale, had some beautiful moments in the "Cum sancto," the "Et vitam venturi" and the "Sanctus," and Johnnye Egnot gave a thoughtful reading of the rather ritualistic harmonium prelude that preceded the "Sanctus."