Negotiations for a merger of the county's two major chorale ensembles will commence in mid-February, officials of the Pacific Chorale and the Master Chorale of Orange County said Tuesday.
It is a concrete indication that the Orange County Performing Arts Center is having a significant effect on local musical organizations.
Officials of both chorales said the prospective merger, which has been the subject of preliminary discussions between the board chairwomen of both groups since Jan. 6, stems from increasing competition for charitable donations and the hope that a consolidation of their respective audiences will make it easier to fill the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall at the Center.
"With the building of the Center, the arts situation in the county has changed," said George Dickey, executive director of the Master Chorale. "The cost of (appearing at) the Center has increased our operating costs. The more tickets we can sell, the better we can cover our costs. Fund-raising is also more difficult with more groups. Therefore, a consolidation seems to make sense."
Although both groups sought to minimize the potential hurdles in the negotiations, they have asked Merritt Johnson, president of United Way in Orange County, to serve as an impartial "facilitator to ease discussions," said Rita Major, manager of the Pacific Chorale.
"Everything is on the table," Major noted. That includes the key choice of "a single conductor," as well as the retention of current admininstrative personnel, she said.
Neither John Alexander, the music director of the Pacific Chorale, nor William Hall, interim music director of the Master Chorale, could be reached for comment. Presumably, they would be the leading candidates to head a consolidated chorale.
Anne Steinmann, chairwoman of the Master Chorale, maintained that she has no idea who would fill the job and that neither man has an inside track. "The position will be decided by a joint search committee," she said.
While Steinmann acknowledged that economic factors were crucial in spurring the talks, she emphasized that "there are real artistic considerations" for the potential merger. "I think there is a desire to have a single, world-class chorale," she said.
Steinmann said she sees no loss of jobs, except through attrition. She pointed out that a combined chorale would have up to 200 singers--fewer than the total number of singers in the separate chorales. The Master Chorale, with an annual budget of $700,000, pays 10 of its current 100 singers. The Pacific Chorale, operating annually on $400,000, pays 20 of 140 singers.
Dickey said the Master Chorale has about 1,000 subscribers and filled about 15,000 of a possible 22,000 seats--68%--for all its concerts at the Center in 1987. The two most recent performances--a concert of Andrew Lloyd Webber's music on Oct. 10 and a Christmas concert on Dec. 22--sold 4,600 of a possible 5,800 tickets, or 79%.
The Pacific Chorale has 1,900 subscribers, Major said. The chorale, which sometimes performs with the Pacific Symphony, sold out almost all its concerts in the first year at the Center, she said. However, it filled only 1,514 of a possible 2,750 seats on Dec. 23 at a recital of John Rutter's "Gloria" with a small brass ensemble.
Reaction from the singers was mixed.
"Candidly, from a logistical standpoint, (the merger) makes sense because the Center is a fairly expensive hall to rent," said bass section leader Dan Olson, who has been in the Pacific Chorale for 12 years. "Artistically, I don't know."
"Each chorale has its own following. Traditionally, the type of music the chorales have been performing has varied. Pacific Chorale tends to do more serious music, while the Master Chorale, for want of a better term, has gotten involved in lighter fare. So each may have difference audience appeal."
Soprano Elizabeth Evans, a member of the Pacific for 13 years, said: "Our chorale would be very concerned about who was going to be the conductor."
"This is certainly worth exploring," said mezzo soprano Fran Wiseman, who has been in the Master Chorale for 24 years. "It has possibilities . . . but I don't think you can ever merge arts groups without some (negative) emotions being involved. . . .
"There's no reason to be negative at this point. Why not explore? Change is inevitable. It would be foolish not to take a good hard look."
Staff writer Chris Pasles contributed to this story.