Q&A; with WILLIAM HALL : Experience Corralled : 'I Started Out as a Young Man to Conquer the Mt. Everest of Music'

The William Hall Chorale--until recently the Master Chorale of Orange County--opens its 40th anniversary season tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center with a performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. Music director William Hall, 61, who also is dean of the School of Music at Chapman University in Orange, this year became the first recipient of a $1-million endowed chair in music established by Richard and Hyla Bertea. He spoke recently with Benjamin Epstein about four decades of choral conducting.

Question: I hear you got a raise.

Answer: (Hall laughs.) The Bertea endowment goes to the institution, a percentage goes to the School of Music. A certain percentage goes to capital needs, a certain percentage goes to underwriting the salary. The salary doesn't increase.

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Q: So, about that name change: Many people felt that the switch from Master Chorale of Orange County to William Hall Chorale just after the bankruptcy--around the same time the Orange County Philharmonic Society became the Philharmonic Society of Orange County--seemed an obvious ploy to distance the group from the words Orange County.

A: The name change was not as significant as people say. It was natural. . . . The board wants to market the name William Hall Chorale as it's been marketed with Columbia Artists for recordings, and with National Music Publishing, which I own with a friend, for the William Hall Chorale [sheet music] editions.

There are 500 master chorales in the United States. I've always been a little leery of that master-- it's a little ostentatious in my book. On the other hand, when I was starting out, people asked how I could have the nerve to call my first group the William Hall Chorale. I never thought much about it; I just gave it a name.

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Q: What changes have you seen in choral groups since you founded the William Hall Chorale in 1956?

A: I am a bass, but I think I'm one of the last. I'm convinced that pop music has brought about a dangerous change in vocal production in America: When I was much younger, you built your ensemble on basses. Because of rock--the head tone, the falsetto, the screaming--we don't hear the basses or wonderful big bass baritones we used to hear in pop music. . . . How many can you name today?

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Q: The reaction among the uninitiated can be palpable when you put on a recording, say, [baritone] Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau singing Schubert Lieder . . . .

A: "What kind of sound is that, Dad?" We're so used to the Michael Jacksons of today. I've been at Chapman for 33 years; I teach voice, and I haven't seen a real bass for years. The baritones and tenors sing bass. Enrollment at Chapman has doubled--a strange phenomenon in light of the bankruptcy--and we have some incredible singers. There is no question that three or four will be major artists. None of them is a bass.

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Q: How do you approach programming?

A: It's probably the most difficult thing a conductor does. I'm doing it now for 40 years, [yet] it's not second nature. I call the conducting itself the most fun.

I look at programming with great fear and trepidation every year . . . . You have to look down five to 10 years. You guess, not unlike the stock market, not only what's happening musically, but also to the soul, the pulse, the mind-set of the nation. You have to know exactly what will work, and when.

Many critics felt the [Paul McCartney] "Liverpool Oratorio" was a difficult choice at the time. I saw formidable drama in it; I knew we could do something with the dramatic aspect rather than the musical aspect. . . . The public loved it. They flocked to it. They had grown up with this person, Paul McCartney. It met their needs; it filled something that was going on at the time.

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Q: Do your programming choices go through a board?

A: That's an interesting question. Unlike other organizations, there's a great deal of autonomy here.

A programming committee is the deadliest thing you can have. Everybody has ideas, his own likes and dislikes. If I sat down with a programming committee, we'd do "Elijah" every other week. It's not like opera, or an orchestra: How many times have we heard "Madama Butterfly" in the last 10 seasons? You can do that or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, but the only thing a choral group can get away with is "Messiah" every year.

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Q: Are you down to a formula now--large works to open and close the season, holiday programs in the middle?

A: It seems to be that way for the last three or four years. . . . But I can't tell you how many people said that Valentine's was our best concert for a number of reasons. For one, without an orchestra, they could hear the choir.

That kind of concert is far more difficult than putting together a Mozart Requiem. It's so easy to follow Mozart's plan. The energy is there; the relaxation is there. The Missa Solemnis is the most difficult choral work ever written. But the singers see the challenge, and they approach it a certain way. When you do 17 different compositions, you approach each one differently. It takes much more planning, much more rehearsing.

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Q: Is there an element of having to outdo oneself with season finales?

A: I never look at it that way. The older we get, if there's any wisdom with age, there's also fear. I started out as a young man to conquer the Mt. Everest of music, yet it's taken me 40 years to actually approach Mahler's Eighth.

But this is our 40th year. As soon as the Missa Solemnis is over, this becomes the Mahler year for us. We are going to market Mahler--with recitals, a master class and a seminar at Chapman.

We looked at the Orange County Performing Arts Center for the performance, but I couldn't figure out how to get 500 singers, 125 instrumentalists and a monster organ on the stage. Now we're set for May 2 and 3 at Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The [Hazel Wright] organ is the second largest in the United States, absolutely perfect for what Mahler had in mind. . . .

It's going to be historic. The work has never been done in Orange County, and only two times, maybe three, in Southern California since 1910. The two I know of were at the Hollywood Bowl. This is probably the first production inside a building.

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Q: Is there a sense with these season finales that you have to outdo the competition?

A: Years ago that might have been the case. I get a little tired thinking about this question in Orange County of [whether there is room for] two or three choirs. I always compare it with Vienna--three major orchestras and eight large choruses for 1 million people. Why worry? We have enough problems putting together viable programs.

* The William Hall Master Chorale, Chapman University Singers and Master Chorale Orchestra present Beethoven's Missa Solemnis with soprano Carol Neblett, mezzo-soprano Catherine Stoltz, tenor Jonathan Mack and bass Louis Lebherz as vocal soloists, tonight at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa: 8 p.m. Preconcert lecture at 7 p.m. $15 to $40. (714) 556-6262.

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