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Pacific Chorale Takes Unmodern Approach

Season begins with a program of sacred works by Handel and Bach accompanied by Baroque instrumentalists.


The Pacific Chorale opened its 33rd season Sunday night with music so foreign to our time and place that it might seem likely to elude a modern audience altogether.

After all, a sleek concert hall on a balmy Southern California evening seems hardly the setting for sacred works by Handel and Bach, music written for big dark churches in cold Northern Europe nearly 300 years ago.

And it is very serious music, too, wrapped around liturgical texts that speak in Latin of a dogged religiosity alien to here and now, an age when we each can choose a faith that suits us. Kyrie eleison. Lord, have mercy on us.

Yet artistic director John Alexander, conducting the group's core of 30 singers and an artful band of Baroque instrumentalists, made a persuasive case in front of a good-sized audience at the Orange County Performing Arts Center that this music is eternal.

Though they use the same vocabulary of sweeping melodies and poignant harmonies, the two composers represented on the program offer their testaments to God in very different ways. Like virtually everything he wrote, Bach's Missa Brevis in G minor and Magnificat in D are dense and cerebral. Handel's "Laudate pueri" (from the first line of text: "O praise the Lord, ye children") is bubblier, simpler music.

But both are heartfelt tributes that let us feel, as no doubt did those who initially heard them, that we can see a path to heaven.

The chorus, well rehearsed and perfectly in pitch and rhythm, was strong throughout the evening. Members sang with crisp diction, plenty of dynamic contrast and sharp musical intelligence.

It was wise to choose for the accompanists Musica Angelica, a chamber orchestra with the characteristically muted, dark sound of period instruments pitched slightly lower than those in orchestras today.

While most of the players mastered their balky ancient instruments--or replicas thereof--to create music as it would have sounded in the early 18th century, at least two were cheating. Those valves on the modern-looking trumpets played in the Magnificat, though they may have made trills easier to perform, weren't introduced till the work was nearly a century old.

Much of the audience's attention, however, was focused on the soloists, including four from the chorus and one from outside the group, soprano Camille King.

Featured in several movements of the Handel, King seemed to lag in technical passages and hovered a fraction above the correct pitch more than once. She was better in the Magnificat--quite expressive, for example, in a haunting duet with the oboe in her first aria of that work.

Soloists drawn from the chorus were at least as impressive. Countertenor Joseph Mathieu stood out, his clear and brilliant tone contrasting with the dark textures of the Magnificat in particular. Tenor William Smith and bass Ralph Cato weighed in with solid performances.

Finally, mezzo-soprano Jane Hyun-Jung Shim--making, according to the chorale, her professional debut on Sunday--displayed a lovely round tone and fetching portamenti in the opening aria of the Magnificat.

With a season-opener like this, Orange County audiences can rest easy: Summer, and the frothy works that conductors think audiences want during hot weather, is behind us--and good music like this lies ahead.

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