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Twice a year, for 37 years, Paul B. Conway, music director of Hillyer Community Chorus, has mounted performances of large-scale sacred choral works that have been shunted aside by the masterpieces of the genre. Conway's service to the community works in two ways: it offers an airing and reassessment of forgotten works; and, if those works have been abandoned to justifiable obscurity, hearing them allows performers and audiences alike a visceral understanding of what really constitutes a masterpiece. This observation is by no means meant to be snide: centuries of public taste have filtered out most of the chaff, leaving us with a large collection of great works that we frequently take for granted.
The Hillyer Community Chorus aired just such an example in Domenico Cimarosa's Requiem in G minor. Composed in just two days in 1787 for the wife of the Neapolitan ambassador in St. Petersburg – the sudden death of a big shot and limited cold storage can really put the pressure on – the Requiem is pretty much a paint-by-numbers affair, but ... hearing it makes one understand the creative genius of Mozart, whose own unfinished Requiem so raised the bar as to bring a slew of masterpieces in its wake.
Of course, it is a bit unfair to lean too hard on poor Cimarosa, whose strength was opera and whose deadline didn't leave room for much in-depth creative pondering. Listeners have come to expect a fiery "Dies irae," in which every verse is carefully crafted to dramatically illustrate the text, but that tradition was established four years later, by Mozart. And we all know how long it took him to compose it. So Mozart missed the bus and Cimarosa missed Mozart. Bad timing for both!
The Hillyer Community Chorus, while lacking the smoothness of a professional ensemble, performed admirably, obediently following Conway's signals for dynamics. The chorus was joined by four soloists – soprano Penelope Jensen, alto Nancy Brenner, tenor William McColloch, and bass Lewis Moore – but the majority of the music was choral. It took Cimarosa well into the "Dies irae" to get a soloist on board, and then Jensen stood up to sing the "Tuba mirum"! Everybody knows that, from time immemorial, any text referring to a trumpet requires a bass and a brass soloist, so while Jensen and horn players Rachel Niketopoulos and Thomas Panepinto brought the piece off with dignity, the effect was pretty laughable. Brenner later joined Jensen in an interesting set piece, the "Recordare, Jesu pie," which involved two verses for each soloist, followed by a duet. Both voices blended well, although Brenner has a strange way of pronouncing "u" that is sufficiently bizarre as to actually affect the overall quality of the music. McColloch's aria, "Praeces meae," did not go well because of his difficulty with high notes. Moore seems to have had a pleasant voice but was given too little to sing – and that in ensembles.
Other oddities in the Requiem were the massive "Amen" at the end of the "Lacrymosa," which was probably the longest section in the entire work, as contrasted with the true ending, the "Lux aeterna," a reprise of the Introit music with an anticlimactic ending. In places, such as the "Inter Oves," Cimarosa's operatic roots (he composed at least 76) were in evidence. All in all, it was probably better not to consult the text – supplied with translation in the program – so as not to constantly be comparing this setting to those of Mozart, Berlioz, Verdi, Fauré, etc.
Conway's next "resurrection" will occur on December 2, when the Hillyer Community Chorus will perform a new edition of a Te Deum and the Missa Solemnis in C by Johann Nepomuk Hummel. These concerts are presented in the sanctuary of Hillyer Memorial Christian Church on Hillsborough Street in Raleigh.