Hill Community Chorus & Chapel Hill Philharmonia
by John W. Lambert
February 22, 2009, Chapel Hill, NC: Two of Chapel Hill’s leading cultural organizations, the Chamber Choir of the Chapel Hill Community Chorus and the Chapel Hill Philharmonia, joined forces to support the Inter-faith Council of Chapel Hill and its work with folks for whom the recession has become an all-too-personal nightmare. Admission was by donation to the IFC, and Hill Hall was reasonably full on a lovely albeit brisk Sunday. (That the parking attendants were nowhere to be seen was an added plus – many culture vultures would much rather contribute to performing arts organizations than to UNC’s – or Duke’s – parking coffers!)
These groups are what one normally calls “amateur” operations, and there’s no shame in that, for the root meaning is “love,” as in love of music. Believe me, some of these outfits work a good deal harder at what they do than their professional counterparts, and from time to time the results can be of very high quality. There was a good deal of very, very good music-making on this occasion, to be sure.
CHP conductor Donald L. Oehler got things underway with a rousing reading of the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila, one of the first operas of the Russian nationalist school and a popular curtain-raiser for concerts, too. Hill Hall is acoustically-challenged. Put a substantial orchestra in there, with a substantial brass section, and sometimes it suggests one of those old jokes about Bubba, the guy who says to his drinkin’ pals, “Hey, watch this!” The introduction was a mite wooly, but by the time the strings started on their big theme, the ensemble came around. Curiously, the band didn’t sound anything like that in the rest of the program (perhaps because so many of those brass folks were through…).
Two members of the CHCC’s smallest, most elite group, Cantari, sang two Mozart arias. Soprano Amanda Haas offered the recitative and aria, “Deh vieni, non tardar,” from Le nozze di Figaro, and tenor Wes Schulz performed “Un’aura amorosa,” from Così fan tutte. Hers is a fairly small lyric soprano voice with a decent lower extension; his contribution of an excerpt that has “Mozart style” written all over it was thoroughly acceptable, too.
The first half ended with the extraordinary and rarely-heard (outside flute circles, at least…) “Poeme” by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, whose life was (Mark Furth’s outstanding program notes told us) tragically cut short in 1920, in the flu pandemic. He’s better known for “The White Peacock,” but this little essay, in several distinct parts, is a real winner, and soloist Denise Bevington gave a wonderful performance of it, marred only slightly by excessive enthusiasm from the orchestra in a few places. For the record, she’s this group’s principal flutist, and it’s always a treat when soloists emerge from the ranks, particularly when they acquit themselves as handsomely as she did.
The second half of the program, conducted by CHCC Music Director Sue T. Klausmeyer, consisted of a single work, Schubert’s familiar and much-loved Mass, in G, D.167. There can be few people over 40 who didn’t sing this in high school choruses. (People under 40 probably found little or no classical music in their HS programs, if there were HS music programs at all….) This reading, accompanied by an orchestra (instead of a rickety upright piano) and sung by a full-voiced adult chorus and proficient soloists (also from the ranks), was, overall, splendid. Even more than the works on the first half, this Mass is comfort food for music lovers, so it was an ideal vehicle for a benefit concert like this one. The soloists were soprano Jane Thurston, tenor Sho Ando, and baritone Will Gibbons, and they were good enough to erase memories of those teenage Met wannabes I recall from my high school (which, you will note, I am not identifying). The mid-sized choir (of around 60 singers) was excellent, demonstrating fine balance, blend, diction, and projection, all from the back of the stage. (There were no texts or translations for any of the vocal works, but in this half they would have been largely unnecessary.) The work is not very long – it lasted about 21 minutes on this occasion – and its subdued finale seemed to throw off the crowd, but after a brief pause, the performance drew an enthusiastic response, and the people went forth into the world having heard some fine music and done some good work in the world.