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MUSIC REVIEWS : Chorale Performs 'Hymnus' : Rarely ventured masterpiece by Herbert Howells blends well with yet another presentation of Mozart's Requiem.

April 29, 1991|TIMOTHY MANGAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

COSTA MESA — How to make the familiar sound fresh is a question that any musician should consider before performing a work that we all know, that we all love, and that we have all heard a thousand times.

Conductor John Alexander must have considered it before he led the Pacific Chorale and Symphony in yet another performance of Mozart's Requiem--the third in two weeks by our most prominent Southland choirs.

He came up with some good answers.

First, he placed the Requiem next to something we haven't heard, a rarely ventured masterpiece of a little known composer, the "Hymnus Paradisi" by Herbert Howells. Second, he performed the Requiem with such insight and skill that it emerged anew, sparkling and invigorating.

Alexander opened Saturday's concert in the Orange Country Performing Arts Center's Segerstrom Hall--the final event of the Pacific Chorale's season--with the Howells work, written in 1939 as a requiem for the English composer's only son, who had died at age 9.

As such, it is unremittingly somber music, contemplative of death yet lightened by references, luminously scored, to hope and peace.

Solidly within the 20th-Century English choral tradition--slow-moving counterpoint, modal harmonies and sophisticated use of folk song--"Hymnus Paradisi" nevertheless speaks with a unique voice, impressively learned yet never pedantic, calm and understated yet heartfelt.

Alexander offered a cohesive and potent reading which, despite some obvious problems with balances and enunciation, made its points persuasively.

Soprano Virginia Sublett contributed richly hued conviction and plaintive lyricism in her solos. Tenor Daniel Plaster, replacing Jonathan Mack on short notice, sang with clarity and confidence.

After intermission, Mozart's Requiem unfolded with remarkable vitality, not a ponderous bar in it. The Pacific Chorale offered the requisite heft and uncommon grace, actively shaping all it sang with subtle shadings, pointed but not over-accented rhythms and fluid execution. Perhaps best of all, the Chorale never once yelled.

The Pacific Symphony proved equal partners rather than accompanists in this reading--thanks largely to the conductor's enforcement of transparent textures--giving a propulsive, full- bodied, detailed account of the orchestra part.

Along with Sublett and Plaster, mezzo-soprano Debbie Cree and bass Kevin Bell gave sensitive readings to their solos, and were elegantly blended in ensemble. Alexander kept tempos on the up side yet never pushed: There was plenty of room for breathing, both physically and mentally, at phrase endings.

Simply put, some of the best choral singing of the season.

Before concluding with the Requiem, Alexander led a poised account of Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, with students from 16 area high schools, participants in the Pacific Chorale's Choral Festival, singing interspersed throughout the hall.

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