The Hillyer Community Chorus has become one of the highly-regarded musical organizations in a city that is home to quite a few good ones. This past Sunday, this excellent chorus, well-schooled soloists, and a fine accompanying orchestra, all under the direction of Paul B. Conway, presented a great concert of several sacred compositions by Nikolaus Betscher (1745-1811), until recently an unknown monk serving the Premonstratensian Imperial Abbey of Rot, on the River, in upper Swabia. Betscher and a wealth of other church music composers residing in that abbey during some of its history left behind them many unpublished compositions that are only now coming into the light of musicological discovery.
Now enter Paul B. Conway, who obviously has nothing against the church compositions of acknowledged masters but who, like all superior musicians who are also historians, is interested in finding and performing music’s unknown works of great artistic merit. Thus Conway was led to the discoveries of Alexander Sumski, whose work as musicologist and orchestra conductor at Tubingen University in turn led him to locate, research, and perform music worth all his hours of study. Sumski's recording on CDs of a number of these still-unpublished pieces and his willingness to share with choral conductors and performers what he has learned has resulted in the Hillyer Community Chorus’ impressive unveiling of some of Betscher’s representative church music output.
For this program, the chorus was in high form from start to finish. These singers revealed a consistently lovely choral sound resulting from excellent breath support. Moreover, there were no voices sticking out, the vocal tone in all parts was rich and beautiful with unforced vocal power whenever it was called for (which was quite often), piano passages were maintained with intensity and always on pitch, entrances and exits were precise, and everyone paid close attention to Conway’s every direction. The four soloists — Meg Kissinger, soprano, Nancy Brenner, alto, William McCulloch, tenor, and Lewis Moore, bass — set the example for singers in the chorus and indeed for members of the audience with their preparedness to sing some quite difficult music.
Bearing the performance burden of all this church music, the chorus sang like people inspired throughout most of this concert. The program’s first work, a Missa Brevis in G minor, showed immediately what these singers could do, as they opened with a dramatic, intense Kyrie, offered with apparent ease the majestic lines of the Gloria and the Credo, and conveyed the excitement of music and words in the Et resurrexit. The remainder of this Missa Brevis was a bit shorter on power and greater on intensity in the Osanna, Benedictus and the somber, often dramatic Agnus Dei. The much longer Requiem in G minor was more chorally demanding and musically complex then the Missa Brevis. Although the chorus launched into the Introitus with bravery and musical security, the top voices began to encounter in following movements what could have been tough going in some of the high phrases, which reminded me of the difficulties singers in all parts have with Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. Classical purity and power were the most admirable characteristics of Betscher’s setting of Psalm 116 (“Credidi”) and his somber, moving “Zum Gedächtnistage Aller Seelen” (“On the Day of All Souls”), two of the chorus’ best offerings of the afternoon. In these pieces the vocal stamina and beautiful glancing trumpet sound of the sopranos held out with no signs of difficulty, as it had in the Missa Brevis and the Requiem. But in the two last pieces, the Magnificat and the Te Deum, the high tessitura began to be very uncomfortable in all parts, especially in the sopranos.
The four soloists sang with professional skill and were well prepared, and their work did not disappoint. Meg Risinger, an excellent lirico spinto soprano with a magnificent range, superior vocal flexibility, and seemingly limitless stamina, offered a uniformly outstanding performance. Everything she sang showed her full understanding of all the texts and how to use all of her voice without strain. She had to be aware of the latter because she did the lioness’ share of the solo work all afternoon. I offer her unqualified kudos in everything she sang, especially the Incarnatus and Benedictus in the Missa Brevis and her amazingly daring singing, with its operatic coloring, in her lines in the Magnificat. Tenor William McCulloch also displayed a lovely, well-trained voice and sang well most of the time in all his solos, but in some of his lines in the Requiem’s Offertorium he showed some timidity and strain in coping with high notes. Lewis Moore’s marvelous bass voice showed to great advantage in every opportunity he had to sing, particularly in the Judex and Aeterna of the Requiem. Finally, alto Nancy Brenner showed everyone what it means to be a great singer of a part which may not always stand out but which is nonetheless important. Her duets with Risinger and her singing in the brief quartet sections were firm and musical.
Some appreciative comments are also due for the impeccable playing of the well-prepared and very supportive orchestra which offered so much instrumental beauty to complete an afternoon of memorable music.