William Hall took the helm of the Master Chorale of Orange County for the first time Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, and the results were glorious.
The chorale sang with renewed vigor and focus, the ad hoc orchestra played with precision, spirit and richness, and it all added up to an evening of alert, vital and enlightened music-making.
Hall's imprint was visible even before the program of Poulenc, Britten and traditional holiday selections began. He reconfigured the approximately 100-member chorale by clustering the men in the middle and placing the women at either end, allowing a forceful core of sound to be surround with an attractive halo.
Hall conducted with controlled, clear, no-nonsense gestures, indulging in no wasted movements or gratuitous visual effects. And the chorale responded with clarity of line, clean entrances, evenly placed distribution of parts and remarkably clear diction.
Moreover, Hall elicited dramatic, nourished playing from the 54-member orchestra, maintaining sensitive balance among instrumental groups and, especially, among soloists, chorale and orchestra.
He launched Poulenc's "Gloria" with electrifying rhythms, reveled in gorgeous orchestral colors, evoked Gallic lushness without cloying decadence and etched tensile, elegant lines.
Soprano Ruth Golden sang with fervent conviction and traced Poulenc's ascending arabesques with warmth and serenity.
Britten's "A Ceremony of Carols" proved more problematic for those accustomed to the sounds of boys voices in the upper lines. The differences in quality and volume of sound resulting from a mixed adult choir provided a series of shocks, although the women sang with flowing lightness and the men with strength and vigor. Golden and mezzo-soprano Debbie Cree proved secure, worthy soloists. In the Interlude, harpist Mindy Ball exploited delicacy and lightness.
Hall approached Carmen Dragon's oversized arrangements of holiday carols with the same commitment to making real music, and the results were simply splendid. Golden and Cree again contributed strong, warm vocalism.
Oddly, Hall seemed reluctant to take a solo bow at the end, appearing only with the soloists or else signaling the orchestra and the chorale to partake in the acknowledgments. In fact, the volley of applause that the chorale received noticeably outweighed the recognition given to this gifted, spirited conductor.
Perhaps loyalty to former music director Maurice Allard--who resigned in October over a dispute with the organization's board--cast some lingering shadows. If so, that would be a pity. Hall deserves better.