O.C. MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Singing New Songs for the Holidays

The holiday season is a time of tradition and ritual. But repetition and familiarity, however cozy, can pose challenges to choral groups who sometimes have to scramble to put together concerts that do not simply repeat the ones they put on last year--or duplicate each other's efforts.

"The problem is to keep the programs fresh and not to be trite," says John Alexander, music director of the Pacific Chorale, which sings its holiday program Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa.

Another aspect of the problem is noted by William Hall, director of the Master Chorale of Orange County, which sings its holiday program at the Center on Sunday.

"People are expecting to hear the same thing every year," Hall says. "You have to include some familiar carols."

Both groups will try to solve the problem this weekend by mixing the familiar with the new.

"I truly think some of the most beautiful literature is available to us at Christmas time," Alexander said, "and it's important to give audiences literature they don't know or do not hear on the radio."

So the Pacific will give the first West Coast performance of "Three Songs of Praise" for choir and brass by Mack Wilberg, director of choral activities at Brigham Young University in Salt Lake City.

The chorale will also sing "In the Bleak Midwinter," not the traditional setting by Gustav Holst of the Christina Rossetti poem, but a recent treatment by New York-based composer John Chorbajian.

The Master Chorale, meanwhile, will offer a new work, too--Conrad Susa's "Chanticleer's Carol," written about a year and a half ago. The text ("Awake, Awake") is taken from the William Austin collection of poems and hymns published in 1626.

Hall has put together a concert he calls "relatively eclectic . . . it is chosen from five different periods." The music ranges from 16th-Century compositions by Gabrieli and Victoria to 20th-Century American works by Susa, Arnold Freed and Randall Thompson.

His program will also include an arrangement he made of Tchaikovsky's "The Cherubic Hymn" when he was teaching in Leningrad in 1988. "I found this older arrangement," Hall recalls. "It was published years ago by a French press. (The publishing firm of G. Schirmer) copied it."

When Hall checked it against the original manuscript in the Leningrad Conservatory of Music archives, he "realized it wasn't correct. It wasn't Tchaikovsky's original setting.

"I re-edited it with correct phrasings, added three bars that had been left out and also corrected (part of) the Russian text which had been changed to something else."

While they cautiously may welcome new works, audiences will tolerate only so much fooling with their holiday favorites. "We took the Franz Biebl 'Ave Maria' off (the Christmas program) two years ago," Alexander said, "and we received 28 letters of complaint from our subscribers."

So the Biebl "Ave Maria" is back on the program.

For all their careful planning, both groups have managed to schedule the same piece: Gabrieli's Magnificat. Hall calls it "the greatest Magnificat ever written."

Said Alexander: "These things just happen."

Both groups, of course, will sing traditional carols. The Pacific will mix these into the program; the Master Chorale will group them toward the end.

Each group also will incorporate children's ensembles--the Pacific Children's Chorus will be making its first appearance with the Pacific, its parent company, and the Costa Mesa Children's Chorus will join the Master Chorale. The Master Chorale concert will also feature the Chapman University Concert Choir.

Don't expect a full orchestra at either concert: Brass choirs will provide accompaniment.

Holiday programs tend to be among the chorales' most popular. "People associate Christmas with the choral season," Alexander said. "It's the one time of the year that choral singing becomes the most popular art form."

Hall generalized even further: "It's one of the few times of the year," he said, "that people can say hello to people they don't know, and not be embarrassed."

John Alexander will conduct the Pacific Chorale, the Pacific Children's Chorus and the Pacific Symphony Brass on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Tickets: $15 to $40. Information: (714) 252-1234.

William Hall will conduct the Master Chorale of Orange County, the Chapman Concert Choir, the Costa Mesa Children's Chorus and an instrumental ensemble Sunday at 7:30 p.m. at the Performing Arts Center. Tickets: $12 to $35. Information: (714) 556-6262.

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