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Pacific Chorale Builds to a Big Season Finale

The ensemble delivers on a pair of moving pieces by Samuel Barber and two works by its composer-in-residence after an unimpressive start.

May 09, 2000|JACK ROBINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their final concert of the season didn't really begin till it was almost over. Only after a disappointing performance of a Rachmaninoff masterwork and a distracting interlude of children's choral music did members of the Pacific Chorale get down to business Sunday night and offer a performance worth hearing.

In front of a smallish but enthusiastic audience at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, the chorus offered a program that tried to cover too many bases--and, as a result, nearly failed to accomplish anything at all.

It started with what could have been a triumph: Rachmaninoff's "All-Night Vigil," Opus 37. Popularly known as his "Vespers," this a cappella setting of 15 motets is steeped in the tradition of the Russian Orthodox church. It's an awe-inspiring work given too little attention in the West today. Properly performed, it conjures up a mystical world of incense and adoration, of transcendent faith still overpowering in our unsubtle and secular age.

The Pacific Chorale sang well enough, but never managed to grasp--let alone communicate--the wonder built into this music. Some of the blame lies with artistic director and conductor John Alexander for choosing to perform only five of the 15 pieces; audience members didn't help by scattering the singers with inappropriate applause between the movements. The result was an unfocused and fragmentary performance of a work that deserves to be savored in its entirety.

The singers showed no greater insight in their performance of Frank Martin's "Mass," a 20th century setting of the traditional Catholic service. Jagged harmonies and melodies make it not a very likable work, to be sure, and the chorus provided an unpersuasive performance.

Things fell apart completely after intermission, when the Pacific Chorale Children's Chorus sang three works so inconsequential they don't warrant further description. It's a great thing to provide children the chance to perform, and they certainly help fill the hall with family members--but they don't belong, except in rare instances, in a concert of serious music by a professional chorus.

(Even the crankiest concert-goer, however, couldn't fail to be charmed by a lively piece called "The Quangle Wangle's Hat," featuring young soloist Nicholas Boragno, who distinguished himself with a clear, musical voice and real stage presence. But none of it, all the same, should have been on the program.)

Just as the sophisticated listener might have been contemplating an early dash for the parking garage--or the bar--the concert turned around. First with two moving and melancholy short pieces by Samuel Barber and then in a pair of striking pieces by the Chorale's new composer-in-residence, the ensemble finally delivered.

With "Water Night" and "Cloudburst," young Eric Whitacre has crafted two pieces of supremely evocative music. The first features electric, chilling harmonies and a luxurious texture performed, for the first time in the concert, with real feeling and focus by members of the chorus.

The second work was the highlight of the evening. It opens with a shimmering dissonance that dissolves into murmuring. Then the singers set down their music and create a thunderstorm with a sudden clap of their hands and the sound of raindrops with snapping fingers. This is a work of unearthly beauty and imagination, and the chorus delivered it to the rapt crowd as though born for the job.

Add to this a trio of crowd-pleasing spirituals--featuring delightful solos by baritone Carver Cossey and mezzo-soprano Heidi Herzog--and the concert turned out to be a success after all. Whew . . . that was close.

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