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Petite Messe Solennelle - Birmingham Bach Choir

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by David Vincent (subscribe)
Occasional blogger and sometimes freelance writer, hammering away in the West Midlands.
Concert featuring 'soaring & intense' masterpiece by Rossini
Birmingham Bach Choir launch their 2015/16 Concert Season on Saturday 21 November with a performance of Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle.

Hailing from 1863, Petite Messe Solennelle is the last of Rossini's Péchés de vieillesse – his 'sins of old age' – and is a surprising and dynamic mass spilt into two parts of seven.

Birmingham Bach Choir will be performing Rossini's original version (rather than his later amended take), for which they'll be joined by the longfordbrown piano duo.

Consisting of James Longford (harmonium) and Lindy Tennent-Brown (piano), the longfordbrown piano duo (all lowercase, they insist) have been playing together for over a decade and are renowned for their thrilling performances and clever programming.

Lindy Tennent-Brown takes the Qs.

longfordbrown piano duo

How did you two come to team up?

James Longford and I coincided as Junior Fellows in Piano at the Royal College of Music, both sponsored by Legal & General plc., in 2001. Together we established a lunchtime concert series at a church in the City of London near to the headquarters of Legal & General, and we thought it made sense to give the first concert as a piano duet team. We found that we enjoyed playing together, and have been a duo ever since. We've swapped chairs since those early days - James now plays primo (all the high, twiddly stuff) and I now play seconda (all the low, harmonic stuff). Seconda gets to be in charge of the pedals!

What do you think your individual strengths are…?

James came to playing the piano from a background of high level study as an organist, so he brings a profound knowledge of stylistic awareness and musical detail to the team. My background is in solo piano work, so my contribution tends to be more piano technique-geekiness and overall harmonic structure. I'm the big picture person, James is the details guy. He keeps us on the straight and narrow while I disappear down a tangential highway.

Your repertoire spans a fair period, from Beethoven and Bizet classics, to Brubeck and Bernstein and more contemporary works - what attracts you to a particular piece?

We love to play quality music. Great works of art that speak to the soul. It doesn't matter to us when it was written, or by whom, it just has to be excellent music. We are particularly drawn to music that contains rich complexity (harmonic, melodic, or structural). James and I meet at a point of intellectual interest in difficult concepts, so music that we find challenging is particularly interesting to us. On the other hand, we both like popular tunes, so we're just as happy playing schmaltzy lollipops as we are playing Bach or Rachmaninov.

Do you have any particular favourite composers, or periods?

Piano duets (four hands at one piano) were very popular as parlour entertainment (and a good way for boys and girls to get close to one another in a socially acceptable way) during the classical period (Mozart, Schubert, Beethoven) and these composers wrote some of their very best music for piano duet. The twentieth century saw a boom in composition for piano duo (four hands, two pianos), especially when hiring an orchestra became too expensive for most composers, so there is a wealth of repertoire from the last century that provides massive variety and challenge: Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Debussy, Saint-Saens, Poulenc, the American and British minimalists, Reger, Bruch.

longfordbrown piano duo

You're joining Birmingham Bach Choir for Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle - what does the work mean to you?

People sometimes hear the name Rossini and think of his operas - The Barber of Seville, Cinderella - and the frippery that goes with them. His Petite messe solonnelle is, in fact, much more grand than his operas. It's a heavier work, full of the kind of drama and pathos that we would more normally associate with Verdi or late Donizetti. The vocal writing is soaring and intense, with word-setting to challenge even Haydn's best efforts. The keyboard parts (piano and harmonium) are both ambitious and virtuosic. It's a real show-piece for everyone on stage from start to finish.

The piece is divided into two, with seven parts in each. Do you have any particular favourite segment?

No, not really. Every individual section has its own brilliant tunes and inventive, cheeky harmony. The unaccompanied sections of the Sanctus are stunning.

This is not the first time you've performed with the choir - when did you first start working with them? And what other pieces have your performed with the choir previously?

We've performed several concerts with Paul Spicer conducting, with the Birmingham Bach Choir and with his Whitehall Choir in London. Our most memorable concert with the Birmingham Bach Choir was a storming performance of Ein Deutsches Requiem by Brahms in March 2012. We love playing with this choir - they are always very welcoming, and we love having a good solid vocal sound to work with as pianists.

What will be you up to after this Birmingham concert?

Throughout 2016 we will give several performances of a new work by Jonathan Dove, written for piano duo and choir and commissioned by Making Music (previously NFMS) in association with a number of different choirs around the country. We'll be updating our website with more details as dates are confirmed.

Saturday 21 November 2015
Birmingham Bach Choir: Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle
CBSO Centre, Berkley Street, Birmingham B1 2LF
£15 / £12.50 concessions
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Why? Duo & choir team for Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle
When: 7.30pm
Phone: 0121 780 3333
Where: CBSO Centre, Berkley Street, Birmingham B1 2LF
Cost: £15 / £12.50 concessions
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