Rather than simply backing up soloists, the combined vocal forces of the East Carolina University’s Chamber Singers and University Chorale made all the difference in providing a highly enjoyable performance of Franz Joseph Haydn’s Missa in angustiis (No. 11 in D minor), more commonly known as the “Nelson” Mass, at ECU’s Wright Auditorium. With impeccable diction and a great blend of vocal parts, the youthful singers (perhaps 90-plus) filled the auditorium with a grand sound, both standing out on their own and providing fine support for four adult soloists. The entire performance, conducted well by Dr. Andrew Crane, received good support from the ECU Symphony Orchestra.

“Vocal forces” is an apt description of the singing in this mass, which is quite a bold and imposing choral work, filled with more forte than piano passages and charged with emotion. The soloists — soprano Rachel Copeland, mezzo-soprano Jami Rhodes, tenor Perry Smith and bass John Kramar — provided good contrast to the choral sections, with Kramar’s powerful voice providing especially good weight in such sections as the dramatic “Qui tollis peccata mundi,” sung over unison chorus. Copeland had many of the lead solo lines throughout the piece, and after an uncertain opening “Kyrie” section, in which she used far too much vibrato, she settled nicely into the music, improving with each succeeding section. Her solo to begin the “Et incarnatus” section was lovely, and later melisma passages were quite nicely sung. Rhodes used her finely nuanced darker voice to good effect and blended well with Copeland. Smith was a bit overmatched by Kramar and the women, however. His voice was somewhat thin by comparison and did not contain the richness or heft necessary to create a smooth four-part ensemble of equal voices.

Several sections were especially notable. The choral fugue in the “in gloria Dei Patris” portion of the “Quoniam tu solus sanctus” section never lost a sense of pace or forward movement. The same sense of pacing highlighted the rollicking opening to the “Credo” section. The “Amen” ending the “Quoniam” section was glorious. The emotionally charged final “Agnus Dei” movement, especially the energetic “Dona nobis pacem” that followed the slower beginning, was top rate. 

With such a large chorus, four good soloists and a symphony orchestra, the sheer number of participants likely could mask a few shortcomings here and there. But this performance had few if any shortcomings, certainly nothing that caused either a wince or a raised eyebrow. Crane led the singers and players with crisp and graceful direction, and everyone responded quite well.

The opening of the concert produced mixed results. William Bewley, a conducting student, led the symphony orchestra in a brief Haydn overture, “Il Mondo della Luna,” with an economical, sensitive and precise directing style. The orchestra responded well with a crisp sound and well-executed entrances and cutoffs. The orchestra also gave a good, but not great, reading of Haydn’s Symphony No. 31 in D, known as the “Hornsignal,” led by regular conductor Jorge Richter. This symphony relies on the horn section frequently, but for this performance the horns seemed to be finding their way around the score. Especially troublesome were big-leap ascending intervals. However, violinist Leonardo Perez delivered assured, lovely and lengthy solo lines in the beautiful second adagio movement. He was joined by cellist Jesse Smith, who overcame a few minor pitch missteps to provide some nice duet playing. The string ensemble sound in the softest passages of this movement was quite nice, without sounding thin or dry, and the horn ensemble sound was much better here.

The symphony’s final movement, finale: moderato molto-presto, took the form of an easy-going theme and variations, with good string playing and quite good playing in the winds. Flutist Jacqueline Traish and oboist Margaret Amy, whom we heard a few days earlier at the end of a delightful chamber concert of French wind compositions, had nice solo passages and Perez returned with a fine solo passage before the end. Only at the very end of the movement did the full force of the orchestra come into play with a rousing close.