Every so often, the stars are perfectly aligned, and something extraordinary happens — in astronomy, or in the world of concert music. Despite a surfeit of hype abroad in the land, this "perfect alignment" thing is rare — years ago, a sage old scribe, seeking to dampen my (then-youthful) enthusiasm, cautioned me that most of what we hear is average, and some is a good deal less than that. So when everything clicks, it's really something. And despite a fearsome display, outdoors, by Mama Nature, of wind and torrential rain, pretty much everything clicked just fine inside Hillyer Memorial Christian Church early Sunday evening, as the Hillyer Community Chorus (which, although based at the church, really is a community ensemble) offered superb performances of two rarely-heard works.
Long-time readers of some of our critics will know that this chorus has been doing rarely-heard music in Raleigh for a long, long time, usually at the rate of two concerts per season. Paul B. Conway is the music director, and he rounds up good soloists and a substantial choir and funds for a smallish orchestra to put on sacred works (mostly) that even rabid music lovers elsewhere can only dream of hearing done "live." This concert marked the end of the presenters' 38th season — a truly enviable record!
On this occasion, the music consisted of Charles Gounod's Seven Last Words of Christ on the Cross (or, to use the original title, Les sept paroles de N. S. Jésus-Christ sur la croix) (1858 rev. 1866). Settings of the "seven words" are not uncommon, but Gounod's is a model of brevity, taking just a tad over 15 minutes, including a short introduction. The fine notes, by Johnnie W. Conway, reveal that Gounod was inspired by Palestrina's music, which surely accounts for the relatively straightforward presentation. The music involves a quartet of soloists and the larger choir and is sung a cappella. The Hillyer forces, for the first time in this writer's memory, sang in quartets, which obliges choristers to listen more intently than is often the case. The result was a glowing, beautifully unified and blended performance, marked by precise attention to diction and dynamics. It was, in a word, memorable.
After the choir reassembled in the singers' usual places, by sections, the concert resumed with Robert Schumann's last work for chorus and orchestra, his superb Requiem, Op. 148. It, too, is for four soloists and mixed chorus. There was an orchestra of 27 players. The work was apparently not meant for liturgical use but does nonetheless include several sections of text not often set for concert consumption. Here again, the singing by the chorus was excellent — one can speculate that all that intense listening in the Gounod carried over to the Schumann. The orchestra was fairly good, too, sounding fine where it mattered most and holding back where things might have been a bit dicey. That said, the orchestra's performance surely benefited from the fact that there was only one accompanied work to prepare for this concert. And the soloists, the same as in the Gounod, were excellent, too. Indeed, they may have been among the best Conway has mustered for these concerts, over the years (although in truth I have been covering them, from time to time, for only three decades).
The ensemble was anchored by bass Lewis Moore, and over the top soared Penelope Jensen; the middle voices were alto Nancy Brenner and tenor David Wiehle. There were not too many solo parts for these vocalists, but Jensen merits special praise for her "Recordare" and Brenner, for "Qui Mariam." The ten numbers move along fairly briskly, from time to time sounding a bit dark (as was Schumann's wont). The "Sanctus" is particularly lively, and the finale is as moving as anything in the better-known Manfred music. Concert attendees remain in Conway's and the Hillyer Community Chorus' debt, and it is a great pleasure to sing their praises for such a wonderful evening. Bravo!