Masters of the Pacific Chorale

As records pressed in 1969 go, it's an obscure one — far from "Abbey Road" or "Let It Bleed." But however many copies remain of it, two found their way last month into a quiet room in UC Irvine's music department.

With one of the discs on the turntable, the needle touched down and crackled before a soaring baritone rang from the speakers. Seconds later, a full chorus joined, its harmonies vivid beneath the surface gravel. With the record sleeves spread out in front of them, James Dunning and Rita Major listened closely and sometimes smiled and nodded in recognition.

The LP, a rendition of Mendelssohn's "Elijah," had been recorded at UCI's Crawford Hall 44 years ago by the Irvine Community Chorus — and Dunning and Major, who stayed with the chorus as it went through two name changes before settling on Pacific Chorale, sang on it. As they prepared for another season as the chorale's longest-standing members, they brought their souvenirs to campus to relive the formative years.

"I can just see Maurice," said Major, referring to founding director Maurice Allard. "He always told us, 'Keep your eyes on me, keep your eyes on me, keep your eyes on me. Don't look down.' So we have this thick book, and the first time I looked down, I looked up, and he's looking right at me and going like this [fingers tapping chest]. I didn't look down again. I sang the rest of it from memory."

Those onstage foibles weren't the only obstacle the chorus had that night.

With rain pouring outside, the members set up chairs in the middle of the floor and took their places with a pickup orchestra that, in Dunning's recollection, consisted mostly of UCI students. Still, those chairs ended up filling, and one of Orange County's most venerable performing groups took its first tentative step that night.

On Nov. 3, Dunning and Major will take their regular spots as Pacific Chorale kicks off its 46th season with Verdi's "Requiem" at the Renee and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall. Also in his regular spot will be artistic director John Alexander, who joined the chorale in 1972 — but he'll be aware, as always, that he's not the most veteran person onstage.

"Rita and Jim are both excellent trained musicians," he said. "Their musicianship has been excellent from the beginning. That's the reason they were leaders for the organization from the beginning, because they were at the top of the ranks.

"What they have been allowed to see in all these years is my growth from a 27-year-old, when I took the chorale, to a 69-year-old, and to see my growth as a musician."

Like a venerable coach for a major league team, Dunning and Major haven't had the spotlight often during their tenure with Pacific Chorale. Both have sung mostly in the chorus, with the occasional solo. (In Dunning's case, that was only in rehearsals.) In a chorus that combines professional singers with volunteers, they've mostly been in the latter group.

But if anyone seeks to write a book about the history of the chorale, Dunning and Major will likely be valuable sources. Years before the group made its regular home at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, before it toured overseas and even performed in the Soviet Union, it was a fledgling group that started as an offshoot of a UCI Extension course and rehearsed mostly at local high schools.

Dunning and Major hadn't met before they joined the group, but they came together through a connection with Allard, who taught the UCI course. Dunning knew him personally; Major met him when he visited Orange Coast College, where she sang in the chorus, and invited the group to audition. Other charter members, according to Dunning, came from local choirs and even a backup chorus that sang with Bill Medley on his 1968 single "Peace Brother Peace."

In its first decade, the chorale performed at small neighborhood venues while going through a series of names: Irvine Community Chorus, then Irvine Master Chorale, then the quickly rejected Pacific Masterworks Chorale. In 1981, the group settled on Pacific Chorale. Dunning, who served as president of the chorale at the time, said the group had a hard time shedding its local roots.

"That was always a big question, whether to keep a locale in your name, because generally, that works against a performing group, to be identified with a spot," he said. "But on the other hand, we thought, 'Gee, Irvine was a pretty hot name back in the '60s, and to keep on the good side of the Irvine Company might be a good thing to do.'"

Since that first show in Irvine, Dunning and Major have never missed a season with the chorale. Once, Major even sang in a foot cast and had stagehands lift her onstage.

When they gathered by the turntable last month, the singers traded memories of the "Elijah" performance in 1969 and located their names, which appear in the long list of members on the inner sleeve. The LP, like other early chorale discs, was pressed at a local recording service and sold cheaply to members and friends.

Dunning and Major couldn't pick out their voices on the record — but then, as choristers who blended into the vocal mix, they were glad they couldn't.

"That wouldn't be a good thing," Major said.

If You Go

What: Pacific Chorale performing Verdi's "Requiem"

Where: Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: 5:30 p.m. Nov. 3

Cost: $19 to $129

Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.pacificchorale.org

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