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PACIFIC CHORALE CONTINUES TO PURSUE LOFTY AMBITIONS

Times Staff Writer

Four years ago, when the Irvine Master Chorale gave itself a new name--the Pacific Chorale--the title sounded a little less provincial, even a trifle lofty. And why not?

In a county now being acclaimed as something of a cultural trend-setter, the Pacific Chorale is an arts organization especially driven by upwardly mobile ambitions.

“Our goal has always been to become one of the finest choral groups in Southern California. Thanks to some pretty marvelous support along the way, we have been able to achieve this goal,” said John Alexander, the chorale’s director since 1971.

Enough so, Pacific Chorale officials contend, to put their group in major contention for playing the Orange County Performing Arts Center in 1986-87, the first season of the Center’s 3,000-seat multipurpose theater (now under construction in Costa Mesa).

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In fact, the organization has submitted a formal proposal for several full-scale classical concerts at the Center in 1986-87 (including some in collaboration with the Orange County Pacific Symphony and featuring internationally known artists).

“We feel it will be a program that’s strong enough to fill that hall, and of a magnitude that’s appropriate for such a momentous year,” said Mary Lyons, chorale board chairwoman.

Although the Center has yet to act on the proposal, chorale officials said they have been given “verbal assurances” of being part of the initial season--which is being projected to include musical theater productions, as well as big-league symphony orchestras and opera and dance companies.

Besides, Pacific Chorale officials like to point out, their chorale--now 17 years old--has one of the best track records of any arts organizations based in Orange County.

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The chorale has sung in a wide array of halls, from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles to campus auditoriums and churches throughout Orange County. It has performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, London Symphony, Glendale Symphony, Pasadena Symphony and Los Angeles Master Chorale, and is a regular at the Ojai Music Festival. It has toured Europe four times.

And by offering a classical repertoire of traditional masterworks and lesser-known works, chorale supporters say, the Pacific Chorale has won wide praise for the depth and range of its performances.

This season, the chorale has performed Bach’s “B Minor Mass,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” and Debussy’s 1884 “Le Printemps” in collaboration with the Orange County Pacific Symphony and various guest artists. Upcoming are Berlioz’s “Te Deum” today with the Crystal Cathedral Symphony at the Crystal Cathedral and a program of British and American folk songs.

“Some people seem to think that some of our programs are too esoteric. I don’t buy that; that’s underestimating our audiences,” said Alexander, who is also a professor of music and chairman of choral activities at Cal State Northridge.

“They (audiences) are growing more knowledgeable, more appreciative of the finest music. It (a concert) is an educational process for all of us, a real sharing between artists and audiences.

“However, I don’t think it’s necessary to make artistic compromises. I see no need for a repertoire that has to have pizazz, or for dressing our singers in sequins. Our mission has always been to offer the finest and most challenging works.”

With this emphasis on the classical format, officials claim, the Pacific Chorale has found its audience. The chorale’s per-concert attendance now averages about 900 (which includes sellout programs at the chorale’s chief performing hall, the old 1,600-seat Santa Ana High School). Increases in subscription members has been dramatic--from 625 last season to 1,100 this season.

But the expectations of playing the Orange County Center have made certain goals all the more pressing:

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- Wooing new audiences. The target is 2,000 subscribers by fall, 1986, when the Center’s main theater is to open. To do so, Lyons said, the chorale “is aiming at more appealing (promotional) packaging, more aggressive audience development.”

Some moves being studied include airing concert previews with Alexander and others on local cable television, giving Saturday family matinee programs and developing new educational programs for students.

Another move is to increase the organization’s visibility at benefits and other community events. This will involve expanded appearances for the chorale’s pops ensemble (an offshoot group led by Johnny Carl) before arts groups and service clubs and at museums and shopping malls. In the works is a proposed major fund-raising concert for the Center itself.

- Wooing greater fiscal backing. The chorale already has prominent backers, including the James Irvine Foundation, Irvine Co., Northrop Corp., Avco Financial Services, Pacific Mutual Life Insurance Co. and Safeco Insurance Cos. The chorale has also received grants from the California Arts Council and federal National Endowment for the Arts.

However, corporate underwriting for concerts and other programs, officials said, needs to be increased substantially in the next two years, despite the fiercer competition from the Center and other arts groups for the same donors.

In the chorale’s $167,640 budget this season, business and foundation donors account for about 20% of funds, compared with 57% from ticket sales and performance fees and 20% from individual donors. (A full-scale chorale concert, including services of an orchestra, typically costs about $28,000, officials said.)

- Upgrading the organization. The Pacific Chorale’s parent body, the Performing Arts Assn. of Orange County, expects to hire its first executive director by next year. At present, the only full-time paid staff administrator is the business manager, Rita Major.

(The nonprofit Performing Arts Assn. of Orange County was formed in 1969 to govern the chorale, then named the Irvine Master Chorale. The chorale was founded in 1968 by Maurice Allard, at the time a UC Irvine music professor, who led the group until 1971. Allard now leads the rival Orange County Master Chorale.)

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Most of the singers serve on a volunteer basis. But this season, the chorale is paying some of its singers--20 of the 120 members--for the first time. The chorale also continues to draw nearly all of its singers from Orange County.

- Finding a central operational base. The chorale hopes to house its rehearsal and office spaces under one roof for the first time. (The business office is now in east Santa Ana; the rehearsals are held in various schools and other local sites.) The proposed new site is the one-time Templo Calvario building in downtown Santa Ana, which the city is leasing to the Orange County Pacific Symphony for office, rehearsal and chamber-concert uses..

The Pacific Chorale’s ultimate move--concerts in the Orange County Performing Arts Center--remain a wait-and-see proposition.

Affected by delays in completing the schedule for the 1986-87 opening season, the Center has not yet acted on any of the local performing bids, including the six-concert proposal the Pacific Chorale submitted last February.

“We have been told on an informal basis that we will be there (Center main theater) in 1986-87,” explained Pacific Chorale’s Alexander. “But nobody seems to know yet what dates are open for the local groups, how much time is being blocked for classical programs in relation to musical productions. These decisions, as we understand it, are still to be finalized.”

In the February bid, the Pacific Chorale did not press the issue of whether it--or Allard’s Orange County Master Chorale--is to be named the Center’s “resident chorale.” The Center itself has already shelved that issue, declaring that residency status will not be considered at this time for any organizations.

“We presume the (residency) choice (between chorales) is to be made, if not now, then at a more appropriate time,” said Pacific Chorale’s Lyons. “But we don’t see any real conflicts. There are two very different repertoires involved here. They (Orange County Master Chorale) take a lighter approach in many respects; we have always emphasized the fully classical.”

Lyons then added, “There is room for diverse (choral) approaches at the Center, I would think. There are audiences for the both of us.”

NEXT: While the Pacific Symphony orchestra has high hopes of appearing at the Center, the orchestra is spreading its wings throughout the county.


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