COSTA MESA — The conductor sits comfortably in a backstage room within a concert hall, which, he says, glorifies the qualities of the human voice.
John Alexander is retrospective. His decades leading the Pacific Chorale have added up, and yet the 67-year-old Laguna Beach resident remains as excited and as enthusiastic as ever.
He remarks that at this very moment, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is a perfect place to talk. It's the hall that heralded in the newest chapter of his accomplished artistic life. It's the grande dame of a venue Orange County finally got, and one made for choral music.
But things weren't always so grand. In 1972, when the 27-year-old choral conductor from New Orleans took the Pacific Chorale's leadership helm, Orange County was the backwoods. Its artistic merit was little to speak of. There was no major orchestra. There was not even a suitable place for one to play in.
But that didn't deter Alexander. He saw potential. He saw passion.
He still does. Come Sunday, Alexander will be celebrating his 40th anniversary season as the Pacific Chorale's artistic director.
Those 40 seasons show a period of remarkable transformation for the Costa Mesa-based ensemble that once was just another community group and has since become a national treasure.
'Out in the bean fields'
Alexander is from an extensive family tree of musicians. His father, Elliot Alexander, came from a family of 11 children, many of whom were choral musicians.
It's to no surprise, then, when Alexander notes that his "family had this long tradition of choral music."
Elliot Alexander carried on with the family legacy, becoming a conductor and also singing with the New Orleans Opera.
Those connections kept music alive and well in the household. The concertmistress of the New Orleans Symphony was a frequent houseguest and an early influence on young John.
"It was because of knowing her as a little kid that I decided I wanted to be a violinist," Alexander says. "I started studying with her when I was 5 years old."
Sometimes Alexander played his violin to music he wrote himself, as his father improvised on the piano.
"I think it's that very close relationship with my father — who was a classical musician, even though we lived in New Orleans — that helped build my career," he says.
When Alexander was about 8, he heard the famed American Boychoir perform. Eventually he auditioned and was accepted into the prestigious music boarding school based in Princeton, N.J.
It turned out to be a great four-year education for him. The group studied, traveled and toured. It was a major shaping point in his early life.
"I had more than the equivalent of a year's college music education at 12 years old," Alexander says.
But going to school "up north" did have one drawback: He found himself needing to lose his accent to fit in.
"Because I was schooled in the North, I quickly got rid of my New Orleans accent," he says with a laugh.
At 13, Alexander got a job as an organist/choirmaster for a Presbyterian church. Some two years later, he did similar work at another church — this time an Episcopalian one.
After attending high school in Florida, where his family lived at the time, Alexander did his undergraduate studies at Oberlin, his master's at the University of Kentucky ("which was a major shock coming out of the ivory tower of Oberlin," he says) and his doctoral studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (where today his brother, Reid Alexander, is a professor of piano pedagogy).
During his studies, he did a host of activities, including working with choirs for the orchestras in Lexington and Cincinnati.
By 1970, Alexander had a teaching job at Cal State Northridge (which lasted through 1996) and had once worked with the Pacific Chorale — then called the Irvine Master Chorale — at the request of its founder, Maurice Allard.
In 1972, Allard went on sabbatical and someone needed to take over. Alexander stepped in.
Jan Landstrom, a Pacific Chorale board member who has sung with the group and was its business manager in the early years, remembers how impressive the youthful man was.
"This young guy came in, and we really liked him," she says. "He did a beautiful job."
But Alexander says back then he was hesitant to take over a choir "out in the bean fields."
He became convinced soon enough, though.
"I saw the passion that these people were driven with to do something really outstanding," he says. "It was a passion that I bought into, so I took the job."
'Can't you people in Orange County build a hall here?'
It was always Alexander's long-term goal to work with choral orchestral literature.
The big problem, though, was that Orange County had no professional orchestra in 1972. Furthermore, the group he was hired into was just "a great community chorus."
That realization led to the first of what Alexander describes as his "three different jobs" within the same 40-year tenure: making the choir a professional-level ensemble that could sustain itself.
Landstrom was in on some of that early development in 1974, when the choir did its first European tour.
"I remember performing in the cathedrals," she says. "We had never done things like that before. He introduced us to wonderful music."
Back in Orange County, it was a lonely world to work in, Alexander says. The nonprofit Philharmonic Society of Orange County, formed in 1954, was "really the only game in town," and it was about bringing in music from the outside classical world.
"We were really, at that time, the only major classical group really making a serious effort toward classical music," Alexander says.
Fortunately for Alexander and his chorus, in the county next door they found orchestral collaborators: the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Pasadena Symphony. Alexander calls working with the L.A. Phil in 1976 a major landmark for the ensemble.
But despite those successful collaborations, locally there was no place for the chorus or a visiting orchestra to play — at least not a good one.
"We were always needing a place to perform," Landstrom recalls. "We could rehearse and everything sounded wonderful, but then we would go into some hall and our notes would sound flat."
The solution was less than ideal.
"We all got together and decided that the best acoustical hall in this county that could hold our audience was Santa Ana High School," Alexander says. "So we all went over to this very old, decrepit high school auditorium that was in desperate need of repair."
Alexander says it was so bad that Zubin Mehta, then the conductor the L.A. Philharmonic, infamously remarked in the Santa Ana High gym during a concert: "Can't you people in Orange County build a hall here?"
The answer at the time was no.
The county first needed to get its own orchestra, Alexander says. That's why he was "in on the ground floor" in the late 1970s as the Pacific Symphony formed under the direction of Keith Clark.
'It was a completely new world'
Alexander says his second "job" as director of the choir — which officially became the Pacific Chorale in 1981 — lasted for 20 years and began in 1986.
That was the year Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa opened, much to the excitement, anticipation and relief for local performers wanting a place to call home.
"It was a completely new world," Alexander says. "I felt like I had moved to a new position."
But in the weeks before the hall's Sept. 29 opening featuring the L.A. Phil and Pacific Chorale, Alexander realized the design of the 3,000-seat venue was, from a choral standpoint, missing something quite major: space for the choir.
He says the stage's orchestral shell could fit just that — an orchestra. There was no spot behind for a choir to stand.
"They had to build this extension to the original shell that was just plywood," Alexander says. "They had to build this whole set of choral risers, and they did this in three weeks. It was amazing."
Still, he says the multipurpose hall — while regarded as a major upgrade from the Santa Ana High School gym — never had the right acoustical properties for choir and orchestra.
"You don't do classical music in a 3,000-seat hall," he says.
Despite all the venue imperfections as Alexander continued his goal of performing top-notch choral orchestral literature, things went well during his "second job" from 1986 to 2006. The Pacific Chorale established its first formal music education program. It even toured with the Boston Symphony and its famed conductor, Seiji Ozawa. Music awards were earned and given.
The John Alexander Singers — the chorale's professional chamber group — also formed, further cementing the Pacific Chorale's stature.
Alexander says he loved Orange County for its fertile and untrodden artistic ground. It's at least part of what kept him here and turning down offers elsewhere.
"There's not this long tradition that you have to live with here … I could just do my own thing," he says.
With a hall to call home and the Pacific Symphony hometown orchestra in place, Alexander says another milestone came in 1990, when the symphony hired Carl St.Clair as its music director.
The Texas native shared his appreciation for choir and orchestra, Alexander says. Together, both ensembles named after the nearby Pacific Ocean went about making great music happen.
"Between what the symphony commissions and what we commission, we've been a hotbed of activity for new music here in the choral orchestral medium," Alexander says.
St.Clair calls his colleague "a consummate artist, conductor, composer and community leader."
"For over 22 years it has been a great honor to have him as friend and colleague," he says. "The music he has created in Orange County is a blessing we are fortunate to share."
'Like a little kid with a new toy'
After Segerstrom Hall opened in 1986, 20 years passed. The Pacific Chorale had traveled the world, performing in Europe, South America and Asia.
Then in 2006, Alexander says his job at the chorale took on a third identity and renewed purpose. The Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall opened.
And this time, there was a proper place for his choir.
He says he felt "like a little kid with a new toy. It's like a completely different world. I've been in a new job ever since we moved here."
"We could get by with murder in the old hall," he added. "The acoustics weren't there … the acoustics in this hall — they don't save us from anything!"
These days — now that the chorale has an infrastructure to succeed and a fantastic hall — Alexander says he works to further refine the sound for the choir's programs, which amount to nearly 20 each year for almost 40 concerts.
The chorale has a roster of nearly 200 singers, about 34 of whom are professionals.
"I doubt you would ever see that many Pacific Chorale singers all on stage together, though, as each performance roster is assembled based on the requirements of the repertoire and venue, and the availability of the singers," says Pacific Chorale marketing director Ryan McSweeney.
The typical roster count now for the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is around 140, with 110 volunteers and 30 professionals, McSweeney says.
Sunday's 40th anniversary program, which begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, also features the Pacific Symphony. Alexander says the lineup is "a taste of his life" at the chorale.
It includes "Seeking Higher Ground" by Jake Heggie, which was played when the concert hall opened and reflects Alexander's hometown New Orleans. One of his own compositions, "Musica," dedicated to his influential father, is also on the program.
Landstrom — who's been involved since 1968, when the chorale was founded — says she is very excited to attend Sunday's concert.
"I'm going to feel a great sense of pride and gratitude," she says. "It all goes to John. He's the one that has kept this whole thing together and made it what it is today. Our sound when we first started was nothing compared to what the sound is now."
Mary A. Lyons, chairwoman emeritus of the Pacific Chorale's board, says for more than 30 years she's "participated in an amazing choral journey … singing for John is a joyous experience, and working with John is a wonderful and productive adventure."
Kelly Ruggirello, the chorale's president and chief executive, says Alexander "embodies dedication and visionary leadership. His 40-year record of artistic excellence and commitment to education are an inspiration for everyone working in the choral field."
As for Alexander, who just signed another three-year contract with the chorale, he says he's busier than ever. He laughs when asked if he's got another 40-year stint in him.
"As soon as I feel like it's not getting better, it's time for me to retire," he says, adding that, for the moment, "I'm playing it as it goes, but I feel really, really good."
BRADLEY ZINT is a copy editor for the Daily Pilot and a classically trained musician. Email him story ideas at email@example.com.
If You Go
What: John Alexander's 40th anniversary concert with the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony
Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, 615 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday, with a 7:45 p.m. New Orleans-themed gala afterward
For more: Tickets start at $15. For more information, call (714) 662-2345 or visit http://www.pacifichorale.org.