John Alexander plans to step down after two more seasons as artistic director and conductor of the Pacific Chorale, ending his tenure as leader of Orange County’s top classical chorus after 45 years.
The chorale announced Monday that Robert Istad, its assistant conductor for the last 10 years, will succeed Alexander as music director.
Istad studied under Alexander at Cal State Fullerton while earning a master’s degree in choral conducting, and succeeded his mentor as head of the university’s choral studies program when Alexander retired from academia in 2006. Alexander taught 36 years as a music professor in Fullerton and at Cal State Northridge.
“I just thought it was time for [the chorus] to have a new face,” said Alexander, 70, who plans to leave his post mid-2017. “I’m not retiring because I feel I can’t do it. I’m not by any means finished. But since my tenure has been so long, there comes a time when an organization needs a fresh start.”
Alexander added that “Rob is phenomenal, a wonderful person to step into the position.” He said he recommended Istad as a candidate but wasn’t given the authority to pick a successor. “After a national search, the board of directors decided the best choice was right in our own backyard, and they were right, he said."
Alexander said he'll be looking for some "favorite things" to program during his coming two-season home stretch leading the 150-voice chorus.
He’ll retire just short of the record tenure for artistic leadership in Orange County: Martin Benson's and David Emmes' 46-year run, from 1964 to 2010, as founders and co-artistic directors of South Coast Repertory.
Under Alexander’s leadership, the Pacific Chorale's annual spending grew 20-fold, adjusting for inflation, from $113,000 in 1971 to $2.2 million in its 2012-13 season, the most recent period for which a public tax return is available.
As assistant conductor, Istad has focused mainly on rehearsals. His first chance to lead the full chorus in concert is to come May 17, when he's set to split the conducting duties with Alexander as they conclude the 2014-15 concert season.
Istad, who’s also artistic director of the Long Beach Camerata Singers, will be the Pacific Chorale’s third artistic director. The late Maurice Allard founded the group in 1968, when it began as the Irvine Community Chorus. After a year, it renamed itself the Irvine Master Chorale, then changed again to Pacific Chorale in 1981.
Alexander led the ensemble on a gradual odyssey from venue to venue -- first the Santa Ana High School Auditorium (once the county’s main classical music stage), then the Orange County Performing Arts Center's Segerstrom Hall when it opened in 1986, and finally to the more acoustically refined Segerstrom Concert Hall when it debuted in 2006 as an addition to what’s now called the Segerstrom Center for the Arts.
The Laguna Beach resident said the leeway to experiment with new and unfamiliar music has been one of the reasons he stuck with the Pacific Chorale despite opportunities to go elsewhere, including an offer to teach at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
“I just have loved my experience in Orange County all the way through,” Alexander said. “I can do what I want to do, while with jobs in cities on the East Coast that I’ve considered there are many traditions to adhere to.” That limits programming flexibility, he said.
“Orange County, since it’s a younger artistic climate, has been open to new ideas. I have loved the freedom it has given me.”
He estimated the chorus has sung the world premiere of 20 to 30 pieces, among them “The Radio Hour” by Jake Heggie last May and Frank Ticheli’s choral symphony, “The Shore,” in 2013. Both were commissioned or co-commissioned by the Pacific Chorale.
During Alexander’s tenure, the group has performed in 27 countries and been hired frequently to perform with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony. For those concerts, Alexander -- and more recently Istad -- has presided at choral rehearsals but the concerts were led by whomever was conducting the orchestra.
Alexander said he probably won’t have many opportunities to conduct the Pacific Chorale or other professional choruses after he steps down. He'll receive a new title, artistic director emeritus, but said it's strictly honorary and carries no perks or responsibilities, such as periodic conducting assignments.
"Guest conducting is very difficult in choral music, because artistic directors of organizations generally do all their own concerts,” Alexander said. "I don't anticipate a huge career guest conducting after I finish."
But he said he aims to continue giving master classes across the country, including sessions organized through Chorus America, a national advocacy and professional service organization for choral music of which he's a longtime board member.
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