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The Wilmington Choral Society gave its last concert of the 2018-19 season at the superb three-year-old 1,500-seat Wilson Center. The Choral Society is one of Wilmington's venerable institutions, having been founded in 1950 and presently performing choral masterworks with nearly 100 members.
Friday's program was unusual, something which has occurred with refreshing regularity in Port City concerts in recent seasons. The relatively brief first piece was "Alleluia" by Randall Thompson. It is reflective rather than celebratory in mood. The choir, led by its regular conductor Paula Brinkman*, had an attractive gentle tone and good contouring of lines. At one point there was a fine sudden shift from medium loud to soft; the peak had an effective crescendo as well as rhythmic energy. It ended with an atmospheric hush.
The accompanist for this piece was the choir's regular pianist, Byron Marshall*. Here and later, Marshall was a fine collaborator. He provided excellent coordination with the ensemble and a sensitive sense of balance.
After introductory words by Carol Beaven, the Society's president, the program continued with the first of its two main works: the Mass in G by Franz Schubert. Herein lies the reason for the program's title, and its pun: both of the main works on the concert were masses, if also remarkably contrasting ones.
Schubert's lovely if modest work showcases its composer's lyricism. But there were rhythmic moments too, well executed by the chorus. This was particularly so in the Gloria and also in some moments of the generally melodic Kyrie. While the Gloria is bold in character, the Credo is gentler; (Beethoven, such a strong influence on Schubert, had not yet written his monumental Missa Solemnis, with its powerful, granitic Credo.) This movement had well-shaped swells in the lower voices. There was a good accumulation in the Hosanna section of the Sanctus. The Agnus Dei had a finely expressive beginning, with a lovely swelling choral entrance in the Dona Nobis Pacem.
The mass was accompanied by a chamber orchestra of fourteen. This was a suitable size; the instruments and chorus balanced well. Made up of some of Wilmington's many high-quality professionals, the playing was excellent.
The principal vocal soloists were Shannon Kessler Dooley, soprano and John Dooley, bass. Don Bowers, the leader of the tenor section, came briefly from the chorus to perform attractively as the tenor soloist. The husband and wife team of soprano and bass were very fine; one wished to hear more of them than the opportunities afforded in this smaller-scale work.
If one wanted to express a reservation, it would be that some sections – one might mention in particular the opening section of the Credo – lacked some sense of direction. It goes without saying that Brinkman is a skilled choral conductor. But from the audience perspective, it looked as though she gave no cues to the instruments. Sometimes too, her beat seemed distinctly low energy for the more rhythmic expressions in the piece. That said, Brinkman has molded an amateur group – in the best sense of the word, consisting of people who love to sing – into an effective and artistic performing unit.
After intermission, the program resumed with the presentation of the 2019 Wilmington Choral Society Scholarship winner. This was Ana Player Murray, soprano; the funds will support her study of voice in college. She sang a number by Vincenzo Bellini, "Per pieta, bell'idol mio." It is a signal contribution of the society to support a young musician as it does, and based on this performance, one might like to forecast a bright future for Murray. She sang with expressive line, clear diction, and significant passion. One wished that she had not used a microphone; it seemed as though it might have been unneeded. Marshall accompanied with excellent balance from the somewhat challenging position of the piano located halfway across the stage.
The unusual element of the program was its last piece: A Little Jazz Mass by Bob Chilcott. This enjoyable piece, worlds apart from the music of the Viennese master Schubert, shows how a rich and deep, centuries-old tradition can be given new life for the present times.
Led briskly by Brinkman, the choir was accompanied by a jazz rhythm section. Karl Marzolf and Mitch Hebert from the Schubert orchestra stepped in on bass and percussion respectively, and Marshall came in on piano. True to the title, the piece was entirely in a jazz style but without improvisatory solos. The rich harmonies and energetic syncopations of jazz were the language and sound of the piece. The Gloria featured a walking bass and boogie character, while the miserere nobis was more reflective. The Sanctus was meditative (the piece has no Credo) and featured a lovely choral sound, reminding one of the "Alleluia" which opened the program. The short happy Benedictus (itemized as a separate movement in the program) was followed by the thoughtful Agnus Dei, where the words "miserere nobis" had excellent swells from the chorus. The Dona Nobis Pacem reached a good peak.
The audience was highly appreciative. Wilmington has the Choral Society and its leader Brinkman to thank for bringing this level of choral performance to the region.
*Wilmington Choral Society personnel bios can be seen here.