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It's hard to imagine anything by Vincenzo Bellini not having been presented in America, but it would appear that his Salve Regina, performed by the Hillyer Community Chorus on the evening of May 18, was indeed a US premiere. The work is relatively inconsequential, in the overall scheme of things. For sure, it's no Norma . But it is capably fashioned, and it is apparently the last of a dozen or so sacred works Bellini wrote under the tutelage of his grandfather before he headed off to the Naples Conservatory - at the age of 14. (I am indebted to Johnnie W. Conway for the excellent program notes for this work and for other information used in this review.) The piece lasts about six minutes and, after it got underway, it was nicely realized by the chorus and the ad hoc orchestra, headed by Concertmaster Toby Weinstein. Soprano Mary Kathryn Walston and alto Nancy Brenner soared attractively. The tessitura seemed a bit high for tenor David Manning, but he redeemed himself admirably in the program's second work.
That second work proved to be a US premiere, too, and it struck this listener as a major find. E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776-1822) is famous for many things - his stories inspired Schumann's Kreisleriana and Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker , and three of his tales are embodied in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann - but composing isn't among the skills one thinks of when his name pops up. Johnnie W. Conway writes that "Hoffmann composed some 20 stage works, sacred music, secular vocal music, orchestral pieces (including a symphony), and chamber and piano music." Based on this single hearing of his Miserere, in B Flat Minor, here's hoping that Hillyer (or other presenters) will offer more. The score echoes other music of the time, of course, but is masterfully wrought. The work is for five nicely mixed soloists - the performance featured the three already mentioned plus soprano Jennifer Moran and a truly outstanding basso, Lewis Moore - plus chorus and orchestra. It is quite richly varied, and the choral portions are often stirring. The orchestration is often quite dramatic, as one might expect from the composer of many works for the stage. Hoffmann marries the music to the texts with skill; passages like "Averte faciem tuam..." ("Turn your face away from all my sins...") and "Libera me de sanguinibus Deus" ("Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God") were particularly impressive. The piece ends with a stirring fugue and a coda of sorts on the word "Jerusalem" that came close to shaking the foundations of the building. Some of the orchestral playing was a bit tentative, but the music's radiance came through. The 74-member chorus was consistently fine, the dynamics, pleasingly shaded, the balance, excellent. This was surely among the finest hours of the Hillyer Community Chorus, whose leader, Paul Conway, has been seeking out musical rarities for a third of a century. See? Great programming isn't confined to the artistic wings of our big presenters only. Conway does it, and Rodney Wynkoop does it, in Durham, and Mary Lycan does it, in Chapel Hill. Bravo!