After 18 difficult months, Pacific Chorale of Orange County finds itself with much to celebrate.
Here are three reasons why: The nearly 240-member ensemble is once again performing to live audiences at the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall in Costa Mesa. Pacific Chorale was also recently nominated in two categories for the 63rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2022 for its contribution to the classic live album “Mahler: Symphony No. 8, ‘Symphony Of A Thousand'”. Additionally, the band’s new documentary-style concert film, “The Wayfaring Project,” will be televised locally on PBS SoCal and KCET this month.
“If there’s one thing the pandemic has done for us, it’s created this great appreciation for the level of art that we experience, especially living in Southern California, but also for these amazing experiences like the Mahler and even now our holiday music rehearsals have become very important all of a sudden,” Pacific Chorale artistic director Robert Istad said in a recent phone interview. “It’s not that we took things for granted before, but coming back there’s a kind of newfound soul that people have added to the way they perform and we really love that.”
A virtual set
In April, when a rise in COVID-19 cases kept concert halls and theaters in the dark, Pacific Chorale began working virtually on their film, which began with the ensemble individually recording their vocal parts. at home. The program included months of coordination, editing, virtual reviews and rehearsals and eventually led to socially distanced gatherings in outdoor spaces for the singers to perform the various songs in front of the cameras.
“The Wayfaring Project,” culminated with Pacific Chorale’s first-ever live performance in over a year at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in July. But with pandemic health and safety protocols still in place, that concert went ahead without a live audience. Now, audiences will be able to watch the unfolding of the project and its grand finale, as it will be televised locally at 8 p.m. on Friday, December 17 on PBS SoCal and at 8 p.m. on Wednesday, December 22 on KCET.
“When I first started putting the program together it was a cathartic process for me and I wasn’t sure what it was going to be like,” Istad said, adding that it was originally intended to be simply uploaded to the choir’s YouTube page.
“I knew I wanted to reach out to people and acknowledge the moment and what we had been through and also create a vision of hope for the future.”
The film features a behind-the-scenes look at how Pacific Chorale, Pacific Symphony members and soloists came together to perform JS Bach’s motet, “Jesu meine Freude”, which is intertwined with contemporary works, including the Moira Smiley’s arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger”, “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” by Dolly Parton and “All Things Common” by Tarik O’Regan.
“Jesu meine Freude” was chosen because Bach had written it during a difficult time to help uplift his community, and it was intended to have interspersed spaces for scriptures to be read and sermons to be delivered, said Istad. For this version, he worked on pieces of contemporary music to help translate Bach’s message of hope and joy to a wider audience.
Although leading a large ensemble has practically brought headaches and technical challenges, Istad said he is proud that his singers and staff have been able to pull it off. He also said the first stage performance, which included rapid COVID-19 testing and masking, was an overwhelming experience.
“It was so emotional and also strange because it’s our home, but we felt like visitors for a while,” he recalled of returning to the Segerstrom. “We started recording and we had to stop because I started crying and we all sort of lost it…and lost it in a good way. It was an acknowledgment of what had happened and every time we get together now there’s this moment where we all look at each other and just say ‘We’re so grateful to do this.’
Grammy double whammy
As for the pair of Grammy nominations for Best Choral Performance and Best Engineered Album, Classical, Istad said it was the icing on the cake of an otherwise surreal year.
The nominations stem from a collaborative effort: “Mahler: Symphony No. 8 ‘Symphony Of A Thousand'” was a live concert recording conducted by Gustavo Dudamel and featuring the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the National Children’s Chorus, Pacific Chorale and eight soloists. The album was recorded at three sold-out parties at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2019 and was finally released on June 7 of that year.
When the nominations were announced, Istad immediately called his colleague and friend Grant Gershon, who leads the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to celebrate. The two ensembles enlisted 100 of their singers each for Dudamel’s vision and together with the orchestra performed what Istad insists is ‘one of the greatest pieces ever written and it’ is very complicated and very big and expensive to assemble”.
The production alone nearly filled the 2,265-seat hall as choir members had to occupy seats normally reserved for the public and the orchestra spilled out to the sides of the stage.
“It was amazing,” recalls Istad. “You never see so many people in a room like this making music. They obviously had to limit the number of customers because we took so many seats and it became the hottest ticket in town. Normally a piece like that is played in a huge stadium, so to hear it in a concert hall like that was amazing because you could hear the detail and all the beauty of what Mahler wrote.
“The Wayfaring Project” by Pacific Chorale
Where to watch: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17 on PBS SoCal and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22 on KCET
As well: Distributed on pbssocal.org and kcet.org.