Many’s the time over the past 40 years (yes!) that area critics have sung the praises of Paul Conway, whose passion for rare and unusual sacred choral music seems absolutely unquenchable. Every year, he leads the Hillyer Community Chorus – a large (75+ voice) ensemble – in pieces he’s exhumed for the delectation of the many choral music enthusiasts in the capital. Having heard a good many of these concerts in the past 33 years (yes!), I can attest to the fact that some of the music deserves its obscurity. Other pieces, however – like the most recent one, a Missa Solemnis by Friedrich Kiel (1821-85) – certainly merit the occasional hearing. This work, composed in 1865 for four solo voices (with a fifth one, in one section), chorus, and orchestra, follows the standard layout for solemn masses, as opposed to the more serious masses for the dead – so it’s more like Beethoven’s, structurally, than Verdi’s, to cite two much more famous examples. (That Beethoven Missa, surely one of the literature’s most sublime compositions, was performed by the Choral Society of Durham on May 8.) There’s a Kyrie, a great Gloria, a Credo, a Sanctus (with a repeated “Osanna” and a “Benedictus”), and an Agnus Dei. There are a good many fugues – Kiel clearly liked them, and his are not too bad. He doesn’t tarry much, and there are places where one really wishes he might have done so, for more than once; just when he gets going on what sounds really interesting, he drops off developing to turn to the next bit of text. Still, there was much to enjoy here – more than enough to hope for a chance to hear it again sometime. (Alas, there have been virtually no repeats of any of the rare works given by this choir under Conway’s leadership – most likely because there are so many things out there just waiting to be [re]discovered and performed!)
The performance itself was fairly typical of these undertakings. The soloists – Meg Risinger, soprano, Laura Williams, mezzo soprano, Nancy Brenner, alto, William McCulloch, tenor, and Lewis Moore, bass – were generally well-matched but often overpowered by the choir or the orchestra or, sometimes, both. The soprano struggled with the tessitura in one number but did better later on, so perhaps she was still warming to the task at hand. The mezzo (in one number) held her own against the others. The alto sang well, as did the bass – but neither had very much to do. The tenor and the soprano were the busiest of the soloists. In the “Quoniam tu solus Sanctus” portion of the Gloria they seemed to get into a singing contest with each other; the tenor prevailed, but neither was crowned with laurels. Otherwise the solo group entered well into the spirit of the work and did nicely enough.
The choir did nicely, too. There are never enough tenors in most area choirs; here, that section tended to sound a bit ragged and to have individual voices stand out from time to time. The other sections were better, and the choral sound – both full-throated and in the quieter passages – was pleasing.
The orchestra, partly funded by the musicians trust fund, was a mixed bag. The first oboe had trouble sounding a steady “A” and both of ‘em intruded a good deal during the performance, too. The upper strings were also patchy and uneven – all those little solos we heard were, presumably, supposed to have been melded into some semblance of an ensemble. For the most part, the other woodwinds were fine, and – with just a few awkward moments, the brasses were, too. Timpanist Candy Pahl and bassist Robert Anderson provided the “floor,” literally and figuratively, and did so handsomely – Kiel seemed to like timpani and bass pizzicato and used them a lot.
So if you’ve never been to one of these Hillyer concerts – this is a community choir, not a church group – you owe it to yourself to go. You can mark your calendar now for the next program – on December 5, at 4 o’clock. I’ve picked at ‘em a bit in this review, but if you’re not there taking notes, I guarantee you will be pleased and most likely impressed. Everyone is so enthusiastic it could hardly be otherwise.