The Orange County Women's Chorus showed real skill and musicianship in a concert of serious works Saturday night, but little of the passion needed to engage listeners and bring the music to life.
Performing at Newport Harbor Lutheran Church, the 20-member volunteer chorus reached around the world and as far back as the early 19th century to find music written for high voices.
Like any group made up of similar voices or instruments--a trio of flutes or a quartet of horns, for example--the 2-year-old group faces twin challenges in choosing repertoire. The first problem is there is relatively little music written for such groups, and the second is that what music there is tends to sound very much the same.
Chorus director Eliza Rubenstein showed imagination and ambition in selecting Saturday's music, in some cases turning to works for children. Composers ranged from Schubert and Schumann to Rachmaninoff and Poulenc.
Still, the result was an unfortunate uniformity, particularly in the first half of Saturday's concert. Ernst Krenek's "Three Madrigals," Rachmaninoff's "Six Songs for Treble Chorus" and Poulenc's "Petites Voix" all sounded light, sweet, dreamy and mournful.
Works offered after intermission provided some greater variety. "Songs from the Sea," by modern Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen, for example, was more interesting and unpredictable rhythmically and harmonically.
Perhaps it would help for the group to stretch even further in choosing its music: The works of 17th century nun Lucrezia Vizzana, for example, or the thrilling folk songs of the Bulgarian women's chorus known for recordings titled "Le Mystere Des Voix Bulgares."
Performances throughout were technically admirable. Apart from a few wobbly moments, the group's ensemble was excellent, with good intonation and rhythmic accuracy.
But the price of this accuracy was a high one: so careful were the singers that they failed to bring real life to any of the pieces. With faces buried in their scores, they created too little drama to lift the notes off the page.
The result was a concert drained from the beginning of any energy, like a familiar sermon delivered in a monotone to somnolent parishioners on a warm Sunday morning.
Unlike many community ensembles, however, the Orange County Women's Chorus has the fundamental skills needed to remedy this problem. By taking chances, by learning to go beyond the notes to reach the music, the chorus can reach a professional level and thereby do much to enrich Orange County's music scene.