Time was when a choral presentation at Hillyer Memorial Christian Church on a Sunday afternoon was certain to feature a quality piece by someone you had never heard of, or a like piece you had never heard of by someone you knew quite well. Such was definitely not the case on this lovely afternoon. Conductor Bill Rashleigh and the Hillyer Community Chorus brought forth three tried-and-true basics, works probably high on the list of choral fans everywhere.
Bach's Cantata No. 4, Christ Lag in Todesbanden (Christ Lay in the Bonds of Death) dates from 1724 and is a fundamental item in the repertory for Easter observance. The eighteen-piece orchestra signaled quality playing early in the familiar instrumental opening. The entire group mounted a game effort on this old standby, coming off generally quite well.
It would be hard to overstate the excellence of the four guest soloists who were so invaluable in this cantata. Highly acclaimed Soprano Patricia Phillips and creamy-voiced mezzo Shannon French collaborated for a fine blend in Verse 2 ("Nobody could overcome death…"). The careful enunciation and bright tone of tenor Cameron Aiken were featured in Verse 3 ("Jesus Christ, God's son"). The widely celebrated Baritone William Adams provided a powerful presence to Verse 5 ("Here is the true Easter lamb…"). The singers did their cleanest work with a joyous treatment of the closing Verse 7.
The lengthy Kyrie that begins Schubert's Mass No. 3 in B-flat was brightened by the guest soprano's solo efforts. She and the other three soloists took deft turns with the "Domine Deus" lines in the Gloria. Great quartet work by the soloists contributed mightily to a successful Credo and Benedictus. And exciting back-and-forth action between guests and chorus characterized the closing Agnus Dei. Here was not one of Schubert's more popular liturgical works, but this treatment suggested that it perhaps should be.
Soloists and orchestra members having been excused, the singers did their best work of the afternoon with the cycle Frostiana, a suite of seven Robert Frost poems set to music by his composer friend Randall Thompson (1899-1984). The piano of group accompanist Bill Shelton was an equal partner with the chorus, lending real charm to the first and last selections from this set.
"The Road Not Taken" is probably the best known of the seven. The first half speaks of the roads that diverge and the traveler's dilemma as to which one to take. Here was an extended unison run, somewhat chant-like, with superb precision. That quality continued in four-part harmony through to the resolution wherein the traveler eventually reaches a decision "that has made all the difference."
Closing the cycle (and the program) was the lesser known "Choose Something Like a Star." Here the "stars" were the sopranos as they called out, "O Star," and held the pure tone through several measures while the other voices entreated in a more mundane fashion. Frost has obviously modeled this poem on a sonnet by Keats. "Bright star, would I were as steadfast as thou…." The singers and accompanist admirably carried out these lines, guaranteeing that "the mob is [not] swayed to carry praise or blame too far."