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An Impressive Journey Through Williams’ ‘Sea’

TIMES MUSIC WRITER

With a mighty noise, sometimes overwhelming but never strident, the Pacific Chorale closed its 1996-97 season with the rarely revived “A Sea Symphony” by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

John Alexander led the Friday night performance by the 140-voice chorus, the 72-member Pacific Symphony and vocal soloists Ellen-Sewell Griffith and Richard Taylor. In the welcoming acoustic of Segerstrom Hall at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, a lot of Walt Whitman’s words could be discerned, if not the majority of them. In any case, the text proved less important than the overall musical thrust produced by Alexander and his colleagues.

After some dynamic overstatements in the lengthy opening movement, Alexander focused on the flow of words and the give-and-take of climaxes. The conductor’s canny pacing subsequently avoided exaggerations and decibel overload. Yet, the accomplished and handsomely balanced chorale and a very responsive Pacific Symphony contingent still brought to Vaughan Williams’ choral symphony all the intensity and heat it requires.

With her bright and expressive soprano, Griffith dominated the peaks, but especially the ending, of the opening movement, as well as the finale. Baritone Taylor sang artfully and produced a healthy ring through the entire length of the extended work; he shows high promise.

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The bonus in this oceanic program was the premiere of James Hopkins’ half-hour-long “From the Realm of the Sea,” a lean, economical and beauteous tone-poem for chorale and orchestra using seven texts from Tagore, Matthew Arnold, James Joyce, Tennyson and Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle. As composer in residence for the Chorale, Hopkins has created a gem-like and touching piece of which both he and his sponsors can be deeply proud.


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