Twice a year, Paul Conway finds some new music to teach the Hillyer Community Chorus and the Triangle community. Oh, I am not speaking of Harrison Birtwistle or John Cage or any of those long-gone 12-tone serialists. The music Conway finds was written more than a hundred years ago, even two hundred years ago or more. It is “new” music because Conway has the skill, knowledge, and perseverance to search in all the nooks and crannies to find some of the tons of music we have likely never heard. Much of the music of the past was written for routine, functional use and then put on the shelf. Some of it was commissioned for events that never took place. And some of it was written and performed but never quite caught on and was forgotten. Some of this music is equal in quality to the great classics we have adopted in the standard repertoire and enjoy over and over again. But these “new” works add so much to our listening by introducing us to further creativity; sometimes the works are by composers of relative obscurity, and sometimes they are forgotten pieces by the greats. And so it is that those of us who treasure this music that enriches our musical experience look forward to these concerts by the Raleigh Medal of Arts recipient Hillyer Community Chorus and its intrepid founder and conductor for forty years, Paul Conway – who is also a Raleigh Medal of Arts recipient.

The first of two works presented was by Giovanni Battista Sammartini, born in Milan in 1700 and died there in his seventy-sixth year. Thus his life bridged nearly all the Baroque Era and into the early Classic Era. He wrote a great deal of music including operas, arias, symphonies (in the Baroque style – more like short suites), and much music for the church. The Magnificat is unique in its brevity compared with other settings, and the opening words attributed by Luke to Mary are not sung by a soprano, as was the usual practice, but by the full choir. The work is remarkably sensitive to the text throughout. It was written for orchestra, solo quartet, and four-part chorus. The solo parts add variety of texture in most of the sections except for the Gloria, which is sung entirely by the alto soloist. The soloists were Meg Risinger, soprano, Nancy Brenner, alto, Rob Maddrey, tenor and Lewis Moore, bass, all in fine voice and at home with ornaments of the music which was written in the time when the Baroque was developing new and more ornate styles of composition. The choir was well trained and sang with crisp ensemble, a warm blend, and controlled dynamics.

Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921), composer of The Carnival of the Animals, the “Organ Symphony” and the opera Samson et Delila, began playing piano and performed in public by age 5. He had a remarkable, likely photographic, memory and wrote books on astronomy, classical antiquity, and the natural sciences. After a concert at age 11, he offered to play any of the Beethoven Sonatas from memory as an encore. He switched from piano to organ and held significant posts for most of his life, the last twenty years at the Church of the Madeleine. Though he had no use for religion in his personal life, he wrote a significant number of liturgical pieces including a Christmas Oratorio that is sung in many churches and community choruses still. In this concert we heard his setting of Psalm XIX “The heavens declare the glory of God …” (“Coeli Enarrant” in the Latin). It was written just weeks prior to its first performance at the Church of the Madeleine on December 25, 1865.

For a description of “Psalm XIX” I am heavily indebted to the excellent and helpful program notes compiled by Johnnie W. Conway. The Psalm is scored for orchestra (including harp), chorus, and seven soloists. Choir members Laura Williams, mezzo-soprano, John E. Karny, baritone, and Dick Wilson, baritone, joined the four principal soloists listed above. The work is divided into ten parts and begins with a “glorious orchestral introduction … reminiscent of a ringing bell and heavenly harps.” The choir enters with glory and grandeur, singing the opening phrase of the Psalm. The second part is a soprano solo sung winsomely by Risinger. Part 3 is a short tenor recitative supported by the harp that leads directly into Part 4, sung by the choir in fine and effective style. “Here the sound of unison voices, supported by timpani and (the use of dynamic alteration) is used to great effect.” Part 5, beginning with the words “The Law of the Lord is perfect;” is a gorgeous duet for two sopranos accompanied sensitively by solo violin, viola, and harp, exemplifying Saint-Saëns’ operatic skill at drawing the listener into the meaning of the text. Part 6 is a quartet for four male voices; in this performance Maddrey and Moore were joined by Karney and Wilson from the chorus. All acquitted themselves elegantly, enhancing the composer’s wide use of variety and color in presenting this Psalm. In Part 7 we hear a mixed quintet and chorus scoring that underscores the ardent praise of the Psalmist. The devotional emphasis is continued by a mixed solo sextet in Part 8 with the climactic words of the Psalm: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight.” Part 9 ends the Psalm (“O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.”) with an outstanding operatic passage introduced and closed by an exquisitely beautiful cello solo and a mezzo solo sung warmly and devotionally by Williams. Part 10 is a reprise of the glorious and heavenly Part 1.

This was an outstanding concert from all perspectives: the choice of music, the well prepared chorus, the musically skilled orchestra, the accomplished soloists and, above all, the leadership of Paul Conway. Thanks to all.