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For a long time – a very long time – choral music enthusiasts in the Triangle have anticipated the twice-yearly concerts offered at Hillyer Memorial Christian Church by the substantial and dedicated vocal ensemble formed by Paul B. Conway in 1970. Over the years, the Hillyer Community Chorus performed some rare and unusual music, mostly unearthed by Conway. Many of the choral works – 122 of them – received U.S. or regional premieres at these concerts. You couldn't say the works the singers gave were in repertory, per se, for the concerts were stand-alone events, but any way you look at it, the aggregate is an amazing accomplishment. (The chorus' website lists concerts going back to 2002; it would be helpful if at some point the complete list of works performed – which includes 30 instrumental pieces that supplemented the choral compositions – were added to the site.)
The chorus was formed when Conway was in his eighth year as director of music at the church. He is retiring from both positions at the end of December.
He leaves shoes that will be hard to fill.
There are suggestions from Hillyer members that the choral programs there will continue.
They might consider revisiting some of the exceptional music heard only once across all those years!
On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in early December, the church was packed for a concert of music by Felix Mendelssohn. The "overture" was the Concert Piece No. 2, Op. 114 (1833), originally for clarinet, basset horn, and piano but given in a version orchestrated by Heinrich Baermann and played on this occasion by clarinetist Brent Smith, cellist Jake Wenger, and orchestra. The sound was exceptional and the performance, by a veteran of Hillyer Community Chorus orchestras (Smith) and a brilliant young product of the church (Wenger), gave great pleasure and satisfaction. (I am indebted to the excellent program notes on this work by the maestro's spouse, Johnnie W. Conway.)
There were two fine choral pieces – Psalm 95, Op. 46 (1838), and Laude Sion, Op. 73 (1846). Together, these featured a slate of reliable solo singers – sopranos Meg Risinger and Laura Williams and tenor William McCulloch in the Psalm, and Risinger, alto Nancy Brenner, McCulloch, and bass Duane Donders in the Laude Sion. The Psalm was sung in English, with particularly noteworthy effect. The diction of the soloists and the choir was excellent, balances – within the chorus and with the orchestra – were good throughout, and the music itself was, as one might have expected, outstanding. The composer was particularly adept at moving from solo lines to full ensemble, and the Psalm contains many such passages that can be – and on this occasion, were – inspiring to listeners. Warm applause greeted the conclusion of the work.
Laude Sion, given in Latin as penned by St. Thomas Aquinas, is an eight-section song of praise that centers on the communion mystery of transubstantiation (in which bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ). Of the soloists, the tenor and soprano have the most to do, but the quartet was heard to good advantage in several sections and the chorus was, again, consistently strong. Here as elsewhere during the concert Conway provided strong and secure leadership, eliciting committed singing and playing from the 70+ choristers and 28 instrumentalists.
All eyes were on Conway, of course – among the musicians and throughout the sanctuary. At the end there was a large and sustained ovation, followed by brief remarks in praise of the maestro from Scott Kennedy, long-time orchestral flutist George Stephens, and chorus spokesperson Ruth Sappie. Kennedy talked about Conway's work as a fighter pilot – surely a key to his fearless musical leadership! – and his deep-seated patriotism, stemming in part from his family's long service to our country, dating back to the Revolution. Stephens recalled the presentation of the Raleigh Medal of Arts to Conway and the conductor's successful campaign to get the award for his chorus, too. And Sappie spoke on behalf of the singers, present and past, who were at once the vehicles and beneficiaries of Conway's indefatigable leadership, over the years. A reception followed, during which the director was thanked and embraced by swarms of grateful admirers.
Conway's service to the church formally ends with this calendar year. There will be a reception in the church's fellowship hall on January 22 starting at 2:00 p.m. The public is invited.