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Choir Serves Up a Box of Dandy

John Alexander Singers avoid sticky sweetness in a lean program of Brahms, Britten and others, including a world premiere by group's namesake.


'Twas a drizzly night before Valentine's Day, and the John Alexander Singers offered the audience at the Orange County Performing Arts Center a lean and even austere program, rather than a sticky-sweet box of candy.

In what was billed as "The Romantics II" program, the 34-voice chamber choir--drawn from the 160 members of the Pacific Chorale--sang works by Brahms, Carol Barnett, Benjamin Britten, Cecil Effinger, James F. Hopkins and Alexander himself, a world premiere, in fact.

This was Alexander's "Sweet Harmony," a setting of some of Lorenzo's loving speech to Jessica drawn from Act V of Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice"--and the last of a three-part song cycle Alexander began in 1997.

In some ways, this 11-minute piece was the most impressive event of the evening. The choir began singing by standing in the aisles alongside the audience and slowly, to a sweet oboe solo by Lon Bussell, began overlapping the title words in close, tight harmonies.

Soon, through what sounded like amplification and possibly taped looping of the voices, Segerstrom Hall became a huge resonating chamber, mirroring Lorenzo's imagery of the music of the heavenly spheres. It was lovely.

Alexander seemed to favor honed and silvery tones from his singers, not only in his own music but in general. Words were usually clear, depending on the complexity of the composers' settings, and the choir enunciated pitfall sibilants (S's, SH's and final CH's) with precision and without hissing.

The general approach could be impressive singly, but multiplied--and at a limited dynamic--through Barnett's "The Last Invocation," Hopkins' "The Rossetti Songs," Britten's "Five Flower Songs" and Effinger's "Four Pastorales," the results began to sound a little anemic and overly refined.

When Brahms' "Neue Liebeslieder-Walzer," Opus 65, came along to close the program, the shift to 19th century style and mood was somewhat startling. Brahms actually sounded somewhat fussy and old-fashioned after the lean rhetoric of the 20th century composers.

The 10 soloists--drawn from the choir--varied in impact. The qualities that made them blend in a group sometimes worked against them when they sang alone.

Britten's songs probably offered the most pungent harmonies, Barnett's "Invocation" the most delicate. (Both works were sung a cappella.)

Hopkins' music evoked the bracing tensile strength of Elizabethan song. Effinger's homophonic Pastorales frequently turned declamatory.

Oboist Bussell also performed in Effinger's "Four Pastorales." Pacific Symphony harpist Mindy Ball accompanied Hopkins' "Rossetti Songs" with taste and delicacy. Pianists Lori Loftus and Sandra Matthews accompanied Brahms' second set of "Liebeslieder" waltzes expertly.

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