Did Center's Siren Song Lure Chorales Beyond Their Depth?

This week's news that the Pacific Chorale and the Master Chorale of Orange County may combine forces is far more significant than what group leaders describe as a consolidation of fundraising efforts and reduction of overhead.

We may be witnessing the first victims of Orange County Performing Arts Center economic fallout.

Long before the Center opened 16 months ago, local groups were jockeying for places alongside the touring big-name talent funneling through the building's imposing red granite archway.

Despite early euphoric predictions that the Center's opening would bolster audiences for all Orange County music groups, the locals were nervous that they would not be let in at all.

Everyone desperately wanted to get into the Center instead of staying in facilities they could better afford, such as the acoustically luxurious but socially downscale Santa Ana High School auditorium.

And once groups had been to the Center, even those that found the costs staggering, they then claimed they couldn't go back to more modest surroundings without losing face.

Some skeptics began to worry that ambition was outstripping reality in the hometown folks' rush to appear in Segerstrom Hall.

It is like the newly promoted junior executive who immediately moves into an uptown penthouse and puts a Porsche on his American Express gold card, only to discover he can't scrape together enough money to pay the monthly electric bill.

Do you blame the guy who runs the building for charging too much? Or do you fault the junior executive for living beyond his means?

As some local arts aficionados have pointed out, it is rare that any large metropolitan region is home to more than one major orchestra or chorale. So sooner or later, we would expect one group to displace or absorb the other in the best tradition of musical Darwinism.

But preoccupation with residence at the Center is artificially accelerating that evolution. It is as if these groups wish to proceed directly from childhood to adulthood, bypassing the awkward, but necessary, pains of adolescence.

They prematurely jump into the Center with fingers crossed in hopes that they can grow into it. Like the teen-ager who leaves home before he is ready, they find there is more to the adult world than prestige and independence. Upon discovering that they can't pay the rent, they take on some more roommates and pray that their combined incomes can keep the bill collector at bay.

It is portentous that neither choral group has cited artistic quality as the prime consideration for a merger.

All concerned in this musical union envision two regional groups uniting to create a single chorale that is bigger and better. That contention sounds logical, since it would mean the pooling of the best talents from each organization.

But quality is being treated as a potential byproduct, not the first order of business. Besides, in reality, a first-rate choir, like any team, is more than the sum of the individual talents in it. It takes years of working together, listening to each other and learning to work with the leader before any cohesiveness can begin to emerge.

The operative fact here has little to do with any of that. It is mainly that one choral group should have an easier time filling the 3,000 seats in Segerstrom Hall--something neither group has been able to do on its own.

As it is, Orange County is hardly flooded with performing arts groups. Whatever their relative strengths and weaknesses, whatever rivalries have existed in the past, the classically oriented Pacific Chorale and the pops-leavened Master Chorale provided alternatives for Orange County's choral music lovers.

And these negotiations for a merger come at what had been a particularly promising time for the Master Chorale, when interim conductor William Hall was leading the group into decidedly new and ambitious terrain.

Hall and Pacific Chorale conductor John Alexander, as the prime candidates in the search for music director of the consolidated group, are both qualified, talented and proven commodities. So if either gets the baton, there is little question that the Pacific Master Chorale (or whatever it might be called) will be in good hands.

But as former Master Chorale director Maurice Allard put it this week: "One of them will have to go."

Instead of having the chance to experience two distinct approaches to vocal music, Orange County audiences will now have to settle for one.

And what will we get in return? Tough to say. But attempting to create a musical group of international reputation through administrative negotiating sessions is every bit as chancy as trying to make a great bottle of wine by combining the contents of two lesser bottles. Especially if those bottles are opened, as it were, "before their time."

Let's keep our fingers crossed that, perhaps with some judicious aging, the experiment will produce something worth savoring. Not vinegar.

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