The Chapel Hill-Carrboro Community Chorus, one of several outstanding choral organizations in the Triangle, revived a rarely-heard Schubert Mass during its "Spring Serenade" concert on May 17, presented in University United Methodist Church. The ensemble now consists of around 110 singers, and the orchestra assembled for this performance was at once among the largest (35 players were listed in the program, although not all the named artists were present) and the best to date. In addition, only one soloist was from the ranks of the choir itself. This is not invariably a guarantee of superior performances, but in this case the imported singers made some significant contributions to the proceedings.
Sue T. Klausmeyer, the group's conductor, has professional ties to Duke Chapel, so it is not surprising that visiting soprano Patricia Donnelly Philipps has sung there, with the Vocal Arts Ensemble; she has also appeared previously in Chapel Hill. Mezzo-soprano Jolynda Bowers' and Wilson Jeffreys' credits include appearances with Greensboro's Bel Canto Company. Bass William Adams has made a name for himself in several venues since becoming a faculty member at Elon University. From the ranks of the choir came tenor William Kodros, a member of the CHCCC since 1999. The instrumental ensemble included, variously, some of our region's top woodwind and brass players, the distinguished harpist Emily Laurance, organist Marianne Kremer, and a large, proficient string section headed by Concertmaster Anne Reagin. Things are definitely looking up, musically and artistically, in Chapel Hill!
Schubert's Mass No. 6, in E-Flat, D.950, the master's last work in this form, is a rarity in live performances and on recordings. To our knowledge, it has not been performed in the Triangle for at least 25 years, if ever. It is a large score, written in 1828 (Otto Deutsch tells us) for "the restored Minorite church in the Alersgrund suburb [of Vienna], where Beethoven's body had been blessed in March 1827." Its first performance, given on October 4, 1829, under the direction of Ferdinand Schubert, Deutsch continues, celebrated "three events: the birthday of the Emperor Franz I, the Festival of the Minorites, and the first anniversary of the church's music society." It was not published until 1865. It may be worth noting, as Deutsch observes, that "Brahms arranged the vocal score, anonymously, for the publisher." (We provide more than the usual background information because there were no program notes.)
The piece consumed around 55 minutes in performance. Some might have felt that this was a bit too much for its six standard Mass sections, and indeed some of them did seem to drag on a bit, but the music is always fresh and often exciting, and it signaled the breaking of new compositional ground for Schubert, for portions of it suggest not only Brahms but also Berlioz. There are no flutes in the score, so the lower woodwinds take on atypically prominent roles. The work is somewhat imbalanced. Some sections are much longer than others (and we're not referring only to the Credo). Schubert doesn't make much use of his soloists; the work is largely for chorus and orchestra. There are some wonderful interludes that suggest the best of the Rosamunde music.
The guest soloists were nicely balanced, and in his brief appearance in Et incarnatus, tenor Kodros more than held his own with Jeffreys and Philipps. Balance with the orchestra seemed fine to these ears but it may be worth noting that the dynamic levels were often excessive-this reading filled the sanctuary and then some, so the performance brought to mind nearby Hill Hall on big-orchestra nights. It might also be worth noting that, as in Meymandi Hall (with its risers), the sound of the orchestra seemed to this listener somewhat stratified or layered. The strings were on the floor, and the winds, brass and timpani were above them, with the choir behind the instrumentalists. This may have accounted for the sometimes-excessive sound from the winds and brasses. During the performance, it was apparent that Klausmeyer's attention was devoted primarily to the singers, which is of course completely understandable. A bit more attention to the band might have resulted in even better balance-although in truth this writer was less troubled by this than some other attendees seemed to be.The work of the choir was exemplary. Diction was remarkably good, and scrupulous attention was paid not only to attacks but also to clean releases. Throughout the evening, it was apparent that the CHCCC has "arrived" and merits consideration alongside our other leading choral organizations.
It was a real treat to "discover" this relatively obscure choral work. That the reasons for its obscurity may be read between the foregoing lines should not diminish anyone's gratitude to the CHCCC for presenting it here, in the Triangle. Because of the rarity of the score itself and the overall excellence of the reading, this must count among the CHCCC's finest hours to date. Bravo!
The first half hardly suggested the "serenade" promised in the program's title, and only one work in the second half did. That was Vaughan Williams' Serenade to Music (1938), first performed, at Sir Henry ("Old Timber") Wood's golden jubilee, by 16 solo singers but given here in its alternate choral incarnation with four soloists-the same quartet of visiting artists named above. It was grandly realized but again the dynamics seemed ratcheted up several notches too much for the space. Randall Thompson's "The Last Words of David," beloved of high school and college choristers of a certain age, and accompanied here by organist Kremer, came next; it was good to revisit it again, for it seems to have been neglected for a long, long time. John Rutter's arrangement of "When the Saints Go Marching In" wasn't a serenade in any sense of the word, but the reading included some pretty slick licks from clarinetist Don Oehler, and the boisterous piece prompted protracted applause and more than a few cheers from the crowd.