It takes a special kind of fortitude to successfully deviate from the holiday music comfort zone, but that’s what Raleigh’s Hillyer Community Chorus did during their winter performance of Franz Schlecht’s hymn Te Deum, Carl Maria von Weber’s Mass No. 2 in G, and Conradin Kreutzer’s Mass in E-flat at Hillyer Memorial Christian Church.
Orchestras, choirs, chamber ensembles, and freelance musicians experience a huge spike in activity starting around mid-November. Any excuse to get people off the couch and into an auditorium seat is worthwhile regardless of the season, but the repertoire often seems limited in scope to traditional Christmas songs. With familiar choruses and easy-to-sing melodies, seasonal carols conjure warm, fuzzy memories of hot cocoa and pretty blinking lights. And just about every one of them has been mangled and remixed to make sure that those happy Christmas feelings also bring to mind visions of cell phones, SUVs, and a Wal-Mart’s worth of commercialized good cheer. The Hillyer Community Chorus repurposed a complex program of eighteenth-century German pieces as a sophisticated interpretation of seasonal sacred music, and their skillful, soulful performance shows the innovation and commitment of this ensemble.
The mass – six movements set to the same Latin text and scored for a capella groups or full chorus and orchestra – eventually became a compositional vehicle that surpassed its Medieval origins as Gregorian chant and the structural complexities Renaissance-era composers developed in the cantus firmus. The sections of the mass, each with their own typical function and structure, are Kyrie, Gloria in excelsis, Credo in unum Deum, Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei. Today, the mass structure is still in use by composers, and canonical pieces like W.A. Mozart’s Requiem are structured as masses. The textual template allows for a unique twist on the concept of through-composed music: The vocal and instrumental lines are written to suit the words, but the repetitive nature of movements like the three-line Kyrie and Benedictus means that composers must devise multiple ways to suit the music to the text. In the Gloria, von Weber spotlights the soprano with a cascading, melismatic solo on the words “Jesu Christe,” and the entire ensemble falls to a dramatic pianissimo at the first mention of the crucifixion in his Credo.
By passing over silent nights and fa-la-las, the Chorus, led by conductor Paul B. Conway, faced a few unprecedented challenges. The choir would have to learn passable Latin diction, and four soloists—soprano, alto, tenor, and bass—would be needed to perform demanding melodies throughout. This quartet of amateur vocalists performed with a professional degree of confidence and skill, and this dynamism transformed ritual into art. Meg Risinger delivered diva-esque soprano lines with a sublime combination of rich, full tone and athletic flexibility in the upper range. Bass Dick Wilson rolled out smooth support with impressive force and subtle restraint, while tenor Tom Hawkins brought forth extended lines in the high range and exposed sections with gusto. But alto Nancy Brenner’s moments in the spotlight—a deep, blossoming solo in von Weber’s Kyrie, a few duets with Wilson and then bassoon in the composer’s Benedictus and Agnus Dei—showcased her clear, intriguing tone; her mid-range contribution to ensemble moments added depth and a gentle shimmer to the blend of solo voices. Amid the orchestra, Concertmaster Toby Weinstein’s solos in the Kreutzer piece stood out, and bright trumpet fanfares from David McChesney and Lisa Norris gilded the opening of Schlecht’s Te Deum and the Sanctus movement in the Kreutzer mass.
Today’s churchgoers rarely experience the kind of elaborate musical worship that the mass genre provides. But the Hillyer Community Choir’s joyful execution of the dense orchestration, complex arrangements and demanding parts of Te Deum, Mass in G and Mass in E-flat simultaneously revived a nearly forgotten form of sacred music and refreshed holiday music with celebratory style and artistic sophistication.