In the many years (34, for those who are keeping count) the Hillyer Community Chorus has been presenting choral masterpieces at the rate of two concerts per season, around 108 works have been given – with no repeats. It came as something of a surprise, then, to realize that the choir had never offered Cherubini’s lovely Requiem in C Minor, given the range and scope of Maestro Paul Conway’s passion for the unusual. Perhaps it’s because this mass is not all that unusual – it was broadcast by Toscanini in 1950 (and subsequently issued by RCA), and it was sung here around 20 years ago by the then-Raleigh Oratorio Society. Cherubini, now sadly neglected, was one of the great masters of his or any time, the composer of operas that remain stage-worthy, symphonic and chamber music, and many, many choral works.

It was S.R.O. in Hillyer Memorial Christian Church on the evening of May 16. That surely resulted from Conway’s and his choir’s long-term advocacy, but the quality of the performances plays a role in the series’ popularity, too – as does the fact that the concerts are free. On this occasion, the choir numbered 84 or so singers, fairly evenly allocated by voice type. This mass has no soloists, so it’s very much a choral thing, and the chorus has rarely if ever sounded better, richer, fuller, or more precise. Some of the dynamics were iffy, if the old Schirmer version remains a viable guide; but the differences may stem from the new performing edition that was used, prepared in 1996 by Wolfgang Hochstein for Carus-Verlag, Stuttgart. Even so, the dynamics were wide-ranging and often subtly realized. The chorus’ entries were spot-on, the sometimes-lengthy phrases were for the most part beautifully shaped, and the response of the crowd, which gave the musicians a standing ovation to go along with the standing-room-only turnout, was fully merited.

The fairly small orchestra of 27 players was at times ragged, and its little string section, dominated by NC Symphony violinists, was notably out of tune and sloppy, more often than not; here’s hoping the NCS’ Music Director Designate begins his tenure here with an old-fashioned house-cleaning as part of the plan to create “America’s next great orchestra.”

The concert was dedicated to the memory of Marilyn Ruth Rogers, who sang with this chorus for nine years and with various other area ensembles for many, many years before that. The printed program, with texts, translations, and notes by Johnnie W. Conway, was up to Hillyer’s usual high standards.

Another requiem, by David Popper, scored for three cellos and orchestra, began the concert. The soloists were Jonathan Kramer and two of his stellar students, Joel and Jake Wenger. Popper’s Requiem, Op. 66, is often played at funerals for cellists and on other solemn occasions. Those of us who are mad about cellos believe that if one of ’em is wonderful, two or three (or more) are even better. This profoundly moving piece made a good argument on behalf of this belief and, in addition, set the stage admirably for the larger work that was to come. Alas, the aforementioned problems with the instrumental ensemble (beyond the three soloists) extended into this work, too.

Our colleague Roy C. Dicks wrote a fine preview of this concert for his other paper, the N&O. CVNCers who missed it on 5/14 may click here [inactive 5/28/04 – see N&O archives] for more information on the Wengers and their distinguished teacher.