What would May (and December) be without Paul Conway’s semi-annual choral surprise? For thirty-two years, he has been ferreting out little-known and rarely performed choral works which he presents with Raleigh’s Hillyer Community Chorus. Not all are gems but all are worth hearing to gain perspective on choral composition throughout the centuries.

On Sunday, May 19, 2002, Conway offered the first US performance of the Requiem Mass in C minor by the Portuguese composer, João Domingos Bomtempo. Although hardly known beyond a short entry in most musical encyclopedias, Bomtempo is considered the most important Portuguese composer in the 19th century, primarily as a reformer and as progenitor of Portugal’s first native orchestral works and chamber music. Born in 1775 into a musical household, he was an oboist in the royal orchestra until 1801. He went to Paris for a decade, where he received acclaim as a composer and pianist, and then spent the next ten years alternately in London, Paris and Lisbon before settling permanently in Lisbon in 1820, remaining there until his death in 1842.

The Requiem, Bomtempo’s first sacred choral work, was finished in Paris in 1818, with the public premiere of the work in London in 1819. It follows the regular requiem liturgy and is scored for a standard solo quartet, chorus and orchestra. Its formal structure and many pretty melodies reveal strong influences of Mozart and Beethoven. The hour-long composition is confidently worked out, with a good sense of effects within an overall genteel framework. The orchestration includes some novel uses of trombone and timpani and several arresting passages for the violins (such as their wonderful downward spiraling in the “Dies irae”). The work holds interest throughout and has many dramatic choral outbursts (as in the “Sed signifer”) and catchy rhythmic elements .

What is missing is a feeling of depth. Most of the liturgical sections are quite short, melodic but rarely developed. The quartet is given little to do, its contributions sprinkled lightly throughout the piece. Even given the style of the period, some of the text is set to jarringly sprightly music. The “Kyrie” (Lord, have mercy) is a gentle, burbling tune, the “Judex ergo” (nothing remains hidden from the Judge) is quite bouncy, and the “Quid sum miser” (I, a wretch, save me) has a loping rhythm with a sweet, aria-like melody.

Conway’s choral forces were well rehearsed and energetic. Their best moments were the sharp, precise forte blasts and big, massed passages. They handled the various dynamic levels well but lost their firm center in the quiet sections. The men in the slower measures tended to be sluggish. The highlight of the performance was the “Juste judex” section, with its lightly dancing choral lines, crisp tempo, well-judged dynamics and contrapuntal layerings.

The quartet (soprano Mary Kathryn Walston, alto Nancy Brenner, tenor David T. Manning, and bass James H. Edwards) was the strongest in several years, all the more reason to regret their short shrift in this work. Edwards, with the Hillyer Community Chorus from its earliest days, still maintains a rich, solid sound, displayed best in the opening of the “Tuba mirum.” Manning’s tenor had welcome roundness and control while Walston and Brenner blended nicely in the several extended passages for the two.

All were heard to best advantage in the long lines of the “Benedictus.”The 24-piece orchestra was also better overall than in the last several outings, the woodwinds especially appealing. The violins were much more together, with only the occasional unraveling. Conway’s tempos moved things along but gave appropriate time to the atmospheric moments in the yearning “Ingemisco” and the sinuous “Agnus dei.”

The capacity crowd in the Hillyer Memorial Christian Church sanctuary, gave long, full applause to all the performers, an indication of this concert’s impact. Conway has a devoted and appreciative following, who revel in the new discoveries he offers, such as the US premiere this December of the Messkircher Messe of Conradin Kreutzer.