Paul Conway and the Hillyer Community Chorus have once again come up with a fine performance of a lovely but rarely heard work. Camille Saint-Saëns' Messe de Requiem, Op. 54, is filled with tears, contrition, and grief, in contrast to Berlioz and Verdi, who wrote terror and comfort into their requiems, perhaps paving the way for the soothing requiems of Fauré and Duruflé. For an incredible 39 years, Conway has been coming up with gems that are unlikely to be presented by the larger community and University choral groups, works that are worthy and often delightful and uplifting treats.
This program began, however, not with a rarely heard work but an iconic piece that never fails to touch the listener with its sensory beauty. During my all too brief stint working at Quail Ridge Books and Music, a lovely lady came in one day wanting to buy a CD of the Jules Massenet Violin Concerto she had heard on the radio. Of course he never wrote one! I found a recording that included the "Meditation from Thaïs" and played it for her. "That's it," she exclaimed ecstatically. One might wish that Massenet had gone on and developed a concerto, but still we are richer and perhaps wiser for this pearl that represents Thaïs' decision to turn her life around. It was played by cellist Jake Wenger along with the concert orchestra with all the warmth, longing, and soaring beauty we can never get enough of.
Saint-Saëns was the epitome of the child prodigy. He was gifted with natural perfect pitch and a remarkable ability to take in and retain whatever he was exposed to. He gave a piano performance in a Paris salon before he was 5 and began composing at 6. His education and training continued at a rapid pace. He was highly esteemed as an organist and was in much demand as a composer. His output was mixed, with giant and successful works like his Third Symphony ( "The Organ Symphony"), the Carnival of the Animals, several tone poems, his last three piano concertos, and his best remembered opera, Samson and Delilah, standing alongside much less impressive works, some of which were on the heavy side and simply failed to connect with Paris audiences and French tastes.
The Mass is a tribute and memorial to his good friend Henri Libon. He was an avid supporter who encouraged Saint-Saëns to resign his post as organist at the Church of the Madeleine, an important and impressive position, to spend more time composing. He had also set up a bequest of 100,000 francs with the request that Saint-Saëns compose a requiem to be performed on the anniversary of his death. Sadly, Libon died an untimely death, and though he had withdrawn his requirement of a requiem before his death, the composer unhesitatingly proceeded with the work to honor his friend. The Requiem was composed in its entirety in a space of eight days, during which Saint-Saëns withdrew to a retreat in Switzerland to avoid the demands placed upon him in Paris.
From the very beginning, the work is filled with sorrowful mourning. The French horns begin a brief introduction along with the strings playing one of many passages that end with a descending half-step, emblematic of tears or sighing. The soloists and chorus enter with the "Requiem" ("Grant them eternal rest") sounding like an urgent plea. The tenor sings a very nicely turned phrase on the words "Te decet hymnus" ("Thou art praised").
The "Dies Irae" ("Day of wrath") begins with tremolo strings and the soloists and choir singing the text in an ominous whispered marcato. The familiar chant "Dies Irae," used so effectively in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique, Rachmaninov's Rhapsody, and many other places, is heard in the orchestra. The "Tuba mirum" ("The trumpet sounding") section is dramatic, and the solo horn leads to the unaccompanied tenor alternating with the unaccompanied bass. most effectively beginning at the "Liber scriptus." The "Rex Tremendae" ("Majestic King") picks up from the previous section with the soloists and chorus building to a majestic climax before ending quietly.
The "Hostias" was another impressive segment of the mass with arpeggio strings supporting a hymn-like chorus. The overall sadness, with the sense of pleading for mercy and expression of contrition, receives a calming "Benediction" where a glorious light finally breaks through. The Mass ends with a gentle amen and a final quiet strumming of the harps.
The soloists were Meg Risinger, soprano, Nancy Brenner, alto, William McCulloch, tenor, and Lewis Moore, bass, all of whom have been heard in other venues in the Triangle; all were superb. The Hillyer Community Chorus, a group that clearly loves to sing, was well prepared to meet the dynamic and expressive demands of this work. We look forward to the fall when Paul Conway and the HCC begin their 40th year of outstanding service to the community.