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Pacific Chorale's Opener Has Proper Seasoning

November 08, 1994|DANIEL CARIAGA | TIMES MUSIC WRITER

COSTA MESA — Post-Brahmsian music written by Howard Hanson in 1969 and Morten Lauridsen in 1980 set the stage Sunday night for John Alexander's highly effective conducting of Brahms' own "Ein deutsches Requiem" in the Pacific Chorale's season-opening program at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Yet it was not too much. Hanson's handsome "Streams in the Desert," colorfully rather than painfully tonal, and Lauridsen's lean, alternately acerbic and lush "Mid-Winter Songs" composer without actually aping his style. Still, their debt to him is clear. Our debt to him, of course, is long-established and resonates in every part of the "German" Requiem.

Alexander's association with this monument gives him the courage to take risks, which he did Sunday in some very slow tempos in the two opening movements. In terms of continuity and dramatic tension, he made those tempos work; they set up the excitement that arrives midway through that second movement.

Subsequently, the conductor followed through with canny musical choices. He allowed choral climaxes to peak dynamically without ever becoming strident; he coaxed some first-rate soft-playing from the assisting Pacific Symphony; he let the work speak through its contrasts. Brahms was well-served.

Alexander's 180-plus vocal musicians seemed in fine form, producing handsome sounds, strong blend and legato singing, and, half the time (in German), followable text-articulation.

*

David Pittman-Jennings was the authoritative, if sometimes woolly sounding, baritone soloist in the Requiem, Margaret Morrison the clear-voiced but unradiant soprano.

The more touching performances were given in the first half of this evening, when Hanson's ode to nature in the face of drought (Isaiah 35) gorgeously sounded a defense of the environment few could refute. With champions like Gerard Schwarz--who has now recorded a number of Hanson's symphonies--and Alexander, the all-but-neglected composer may rise again.

As performed elegantly by the Pacific Chorale, Lauridsen's masterly "Mid-Winter Songs" achieved a transparency and emotional resonance the composer, who was present, must have appreciated. In this part of the program, the (English) text emerged clearly, the dominant sound of the chorale meshed effortlessly with that of the orchestra, and the beauties of Robert Graves' words were unimpeded.

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