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For 36 seasons, the Hillyer Community Chorus has rendered exceptional service in Raleigh by performing mostly rare or unknown choral works several times a year. The organizing genius behind these programs is Paul B. Conway, whose musical interests are wide-ranging in the extreme. There have been virtually no repeats – perhaps just one work was given two times. That Conway has managed to come up with so much worthwhile material says as much about his sleuthing skills as it does about the vast quantity of music residing in dusty archives that – but for groups like the Hillyer Community Chorus – music lovers would never get to hear at all.
On the evening of May 21, Conway put on a truly exceptional work, a rare Mass (in F) by Luigi Cherubini, whose Requiem in C Minor was performed years ago in Hillyer Memorial Christian Church (and performed – elsewhere – and recorded by Arturo Toscanini and Riccardo Muti, among others, too).
Now this is an amateur choir, and funding for these performances has always been tight, and as it happens, this Mass may have been the most astute selection of the entire 36-year run. That's because it was written for an amateur ensemble, one that didn't even have any altos, and for three non-professional soloists (so there are no substantial and demanding solo passages), and for whatever band of instrumentalists were available in the little French burg of Chimay, in 1808-9. (Never mind that, according to Johnnie W. Conway's program notes, the premiere of the complete score wound up being given in Paris, where some world-class artists were available to perform it....)
Now Cherubini was no slouch. His output was large, and his influence was considerable. Beethoven's Fidelio, for example, owes much to Cherubini's examples, most particularly Les deux journées. And when played with attention and skill – as a good deal of this Mass was – the orchestral writing is handsome, indeed. There's drama aplenty, even in this fairly straightforward setting of the standard Mass, and here and there are hints of things that savvy music lovers would have recognized in later works by other, far better known masters, including Berlioz.
So it definitely was a concert worth attending and music worth hearing. The three choral parts – sopranos, tenors, and basses – projected well and were often quite decently blended, although the tenor section, augmented with Hillyer's regular altoes, lacked its customary texture and timbre. (Placing the male tenors forward of the augmenting altoes might have made a difference.) The soloists were soprano Meg Risinger, tenor Nancy Brenner, and bass Lewis Moore – a well-balanced trio that made some fine contributions during the hour and a quarter the Mass consumed. The music sounds more complicated than it is, presumably (although one suspects that the overall level of musical literacy may have been a bit greater in Cherubini's time than ours), and the work consistently impressed with its variety and in its many attractive details. Conway and Company paid close attention to dynamics during the evening, but one example will suffice: the hushed singing in the Crucifixus section of the substantial Gloria was some of this choir's best work, ever. Overall, this was an important revival – the music is good throughout, and the performance, by the solo voices, the choir, and the eighteen instrumentalists – did it considerable justice.
How would one put a value on the music provided for 36 seasons by this chorus? It's really impossible, when you think about it. They could have been doing performances of mixed programs or major works that other area choirs undertake from time to time. But by charting a course that has taken listeners to many, many new works, Conway has enriched not only his singers but his audiences, too. Bravo!
The winter concert of the Hillyer Community Chorus has been announced for Sunday, December 10, at 4:00 p.m. For more information, call 919/787-9458.