COSTA MESA — In 1842 when Verdi wrote "Nabucco," he knew that fellow patriots would recognize his lament of the exiled Jews in Babylon ("Va pensiero") as a thinly veiled cry against Austrian rule in Italy. Saturday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, John Alexander and the Pacific Chorale expanded the implied struggle for freedom into a prayer for the people of Eastern Europe.
Choral groups representing 19 Orange County high schools joined the chorale in its supplication. (Alexander knows his audience: He took advantage of this appealing assembly to plead for support of Orange County's dwindling music education programs: "Music education is not a frill. I firmly believe it is a necessity. . . ." Naturally, an audience of concert-goers voiced clamorous agreement).
One of seven Verdi opera choruses on the program, it unfolded with lovely simplicity and a sense of fervent understanding, as the Pacific Symphony mustered handsomely refined accompaniment. At other moments (the Soldiers' Chorus from the Act III of "Il Trovatore," for instance) the orchestra had overwhelmed the Chorale--but given the choice of choruses, the musicians perhaps should be complimented for restraint rather than chastised for excess. "Va pensiero" was the only opera selection that did not tempt unbridled boisterousness.
By the time the seventh excerpt closed--the inevitable Triumphal March from "Aida"--at least one listener was ready to offer a round of hot tea with honey to soothe offended vocal chords. If the men blustered a bit at the top of crescendos in the Chorus of the Knights of Death from "La Battaglia di Legnano," sympathy surely was in order.
In any case, vocal flaws did not intrude often. Clear phrasing and enunciation, and sure control of pitch--as in the crisp, short phrases and staccato syllables that defined the Fire Chorus (Act I of "Otello")--had characterized the concert.
Before embarking on the post-intermission, best-loved choruses, the Chorale served up a stunningly fluid "Four Sacred Songs." A cappella sections--the closing pianissimo "Amen" of a subdued and flowing 'Ave Maria,' the men's opening praise to God in the "Te Deum"--particularly highlighted the group's ability to merge into an organ-like blend.
There may be more dramatic approaches to these works. But none could luxuriate more in abundant melodies supported by precise intonation, facile shifts in dynamics, and firmly sustained legato lines.