The climax to the season-opening concert Sunday by the Pacific Chorale in the new Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center was a double premiere: first hearings of new works by important, internationally acknowledged American composers Morten Lauridsen and Jake Heggie.
But first, the 180-voice chorale, celebrating its move into its new home, gave performances that served as a reminder of its high achievement over a 39-year history in Orange County.
That accomplishment is a mighty one. In exposing samples of masterpieces by Randall Thompson, Handel, Mozart and Brahms, all leading up to the premieres, longtime artistic director John Alexander displayed the chorale's stunning range, its command of colors and dynamics, its textual sensitivity, its vocal power and the potency of its quiet singing.
Nothing touches the listener so deeply as soft singing by a massive choir of expert vocalists; this was the achievement in Thompson's famous "Alleluia" and in Brahms' "Nanie." Alexander's timing, his drawing out of phrases, was masterly. In climaxes, he created joy without frenzy; in quieter passages, he kept the music in motion without hurrying.
With the sterling and immaculate collaboration of the Pacific Symphony, the total performance was a model of stylishness, particularly in two coronation anthems by Handel and in Mozart's "Ave Verum Corpus" and the imposingly brief Mass in C. The Mass, sung pristinely by only 37 singers and by a strong solo quartet, tellingly showed the ensemble's versatility.
Lauridsen's potent, seven-minute "Chanson Eloignee" continues that composer's long series of soul-searching works that thrill the ear and touch the heart. It will resonate in many places for a long time.
Heggie's "Seeking Higher Ground," to a text by Sister Helen Prejean, is also brief, but thrilling in another context: its re-creating of the Hurricane Katrina events and aftermath. All the elements are here, re-created, alla breve -- chaos, misery, confusion, hopelessness, finally reconciliation. It is a whirlwind of a piece, convincingly dramatic, ultimately touching. Heggie's command of the orchestra has come a long way since his first opera, "Dead Man Walking," and his vocal writing remains authentic and idiomatic.