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Choral Music Review Print

Less than Perfect, More than Wonderful: Elegance and Grace from the French Baroque

May 22, 2005 - Raleigh, NC:

There is a sort of charming and mystic quality in music of the French Baroque era. Claiming certain elements from the Low Countries' traditions and a few influences from the Italians (with whom they perceived themselves in high competition) but little of the Germanic (which did not really assert its influence until the late Baroque), the French style was elegant, graceful and unique. A marvelous example of this is the Messe de Requiem by André Campra (1660-1744), performed Sunday evening, May 22, by the Hillyer Community Chorus, conducted – as it has been for the past 35 years – by Paul B. Conway. The cozy and uncluttered sanctuary of Hillyer Memorial Christian Church, sponsor of the chorus, was filled to capacity. The concert was provided free to the public, with donations invited.

Campra was known as a man of supreme skill in furthering his own career. As a young man he dreamed of going to Paris, so while serving in his appointment at Toulouse, he took frequent leaves of absence "to perfect himself," during which he was actually developing contacts that led to his nomination and appointment to Notre-Dame in Paris in 1694. Once in Paris, Campra became enamored of the opera, and under an assumed name wrote l'Europe galante and had it produced at the Paris opera with significant success. He left the church and for 20 years composed for the theater; he is best known for his opera Tancréde. In 1722 or '23 he returned to church music when he was appointed composer to the Chapelle Royale. It is not entirely clear during which period the Requiem was composed since there is no record of its first performance. What is known is that it achieved some level of popularity, and there are records of excerpts of this work being performed alternately with movements of Jean Giles' very popular Requiem.

Campra's Requiem may have been composed for an important ceremonial funeral, as it has elements of the effort to conceal death behind a gigantic fiction (after Pascal), then in vogue. After a brief, quiet orchestral introduction, the "Introitus" begins with a somber chorale conveying the text "Grant them eternal rest, O Lord." At the next phrase – "and let perpetual light shine upon them" – the tempo and mood change with a sprightly, danceable and –

especially on the Latin phrase "luceat eis" – memorable tune. The tenor, counter-tenor and baritone – the male trio being standard at the time – introduce the "Te decet hymnus" section of the mass. The "Kyrie" and the rest of the work continue in this vein with alternating quiet and meditative passages followed by brighter and lighter ones. Contrast is also provided by a Grand Choir and a Petit Choir. The work is a delight to hear and maintains interest and pleasure throughout.

The performance was less than perfect, but more than wonderful. Just the fact that, over these many years, Paul Conway and the HCC choristers have undertaken such works – rarely heard but offering exquisite delights – is, in itself, a wonder. Just a few days before this concert, the Hillyer Community Chorus was awarded the Raleigh Medal of Arts in recognition of 35 years of expanding the musical horizons of our community.

The chorus was mostly up for this one, although some entrances were a bit uncertain and several cadences were likewise insecure. The pitch was maintained pretty well, the phrasing and dynamics were effective, and the enthusiasm was winsome, especially in the full-voice choral passages. The baroque chamber orchestra of eleven strings, two flutes and harpsichord gave a pleasant and creditable performance for the most part. Tenor soloist David Wiehle had some difficulty controlling a tremor in his voice a couple of times but did a fine job, overall, in his solo and trio passages. Collin Cooper, a former boy treble who has maintained his falsetto voice into adulthood, has the gift even though his voice is not yet quite solid as a developed counter-tenor. The most impressive of the soloists was baritone Lewis Moore, with a deep, rich tonal quality even though his switch to the lower tessitura was a wee bit heavy. The male trio passages of the Requiem are part of its charm, and the three soloists carried them off well.

The program was dedicated to long-time chorus member Paul W. Woo, who passed away in January. The program notes by Johnnie W. Conway provided helpful background information and descriptions of the music. The 35th anniversary reception in the Fellowship Hall after the performance provided an opportunity to meet the artists and friends in a pleasant ambience. The next concert, planned for December 11*, will feature music of the distinguished Bohemian composer Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679-1745).

*Updated/corrected 6/28/05.