A mini-survey of French choral music from 1865 to 1947 given by the Pacific Chorale, Sunday night in Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, offered bracingnovelty.
Gabriel Faure's "Cantique de Jean Racine" preceded unfamiliar pieces by his students Maurice Ravel and Lili Boulanger--all of them in U.S. premiere performances--which were followed by the deep joys in Maurice Durufle's motet "Ubi Caritas" and his Requiem. The last featured the addition of dancer Ethan Stiefel, who brought visual substance and contemplative focus to two of the nine movements.
John Alexander led the 160-voice chorale, the full Pacific Symphony and vocal soloists through this demanding, balanced program with the authority and imagination of his best efforts. The agenda resonated in the mind as well as in the ear.
To begin with, Faure established a mood of poetic seriousness complemented by aural clarity. The Pacific Chorale delivered words carefully, created long legato lines, accomplished the composer's climaxes powerfully but without stridency.
A pared-down transparency--the opposite of the fully realized high points in the program-closing Requiem--marked the Ravel and Boulanger cantatas, short pieces heard here for the first time through the work of scholar C. Leonard Coduti, Alexander's musical assistant. All four of these were written at the beginning of each composer's career--in Boulanger's case, that career was cut tragically short--but reveal already accomplishments of high order.
Sensitive and probing performances throughout characterized the singing and playing, although some climactic points in the Requiem, where the male singers are exposed, fell short of thrust and brilliance.
Dancer Stiefel, a principal with American Ballet Theatre, performed splendidly and touchingly in the two Requiem solos choreographed for him by David Allan--who teaches at UC Irvine and maintains his career as a choreographer.
The entire performance was dedicated to another dancer, Gregory Brown Osborne, who graduated from high school in Corona del Mar in 1971 and died in 1994; he had been a principal dancer with National Ballet of Canada and American Ballet Theatre.