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It's hard to believe that the Hillyer Community Chorus has been going strong for 35 years, but that's what the program for an all-Mendelssohn concert presented on December 5 reminded us. The group and its conductor merit thanks and praise for that and for the many rare and unusual works given over that long period of time. Conway is, as has been noted repeatedly in these pages and elsewhere, one of our region's most remarkable musical sleuths; many of the works given by this choir have been regional or US premieres or better. It's remarkable, too, that there have been almost no repeats of repertoire. Wow!
This year's chorus consists of 88 singers, dominated by sopranos. As is the case elsewhere, tenors are scarce commodities, and good ones are rarer still. Sitting on the men's side helped, and from that perspective there weren't many problems with choral balance on this occasion, but there were some issues relating to loudness, particularly among the sopranos, whose tone was at times strident and hash.
The music consisted of two works written by Mendelssohn when he was all of 13, but without the program notes by Johnnie W. Conway it's a safe bet that no one would have known that. The Magnificat is scored for solo quartet, chorus and orchestra, and it's a honey of a piece — vibrant, rich, exciting. So, too is the Gloria, scored for five solo voices, chorus and orchestra. Several of the individual numbers (the Magnificat is in seven sections, the Gloria, in six) overstayed their welcome a bit; Mendelssohn would surely have revisited them if he'd lived a little longer and realized they'd be turning up in actual concerts many years after they were written!
The solo singers were sopranos Meg Risinger and Laura Williams (the latter appearing only in the Gloria), mezzo-soprano Nancy Brenner, tenor David T. Manning, and bass Lewis Moore. The women and the basso sang well and effectively. Unfortunately the tenor had a bad afternoon, and because his parts were often with the others, there were some difficult moments for all concerned. There were some problems in the orchestra, too, with scrawny and not always tight strings and some strange things in the winds.
All that said, the two selections swept along with great brilliance, and the large audience enjoyed rare opportunities to hear two virtually unknown scores by one of music's great masters. Hillyer Memorial Christian Church was beautifully decorated with a substantial tree, wreaths and garlands, and there are few more attractive sanctuaries in the late afternoon, when the sun filters through the windows, bringing light and shade to bear as the music unfolds.
For the record, this performance of the Gloria was said to have been its US premiere.