After a rough 18 months, Orange County’s Pacific Chorale is finding itself with plenty to celebrate.
Here are three reasons: The nearly 240-member ensemble is once again performing in front of 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 live classical album “Mahler: Symphony No. 8, ‘Symphony Of A Thousand.’” As well, the group’s new documentary-style concert film, “The Wayfaring Project,” will be locally televised on PBS SoCal and KCET this month.
“If there’s one thing the pandemic did for us, it was that it created this great appreciation for the level of artistry we experience, especially living in Southern California, but also for these incredible 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 during a recent phone interview. “Not that we took things for granted before, but coming back, there’s a sort of newfound soul that people have added to the way that they’re performing and we’re really loving it.”
A virtual ensemble
Back in April, when a surge in COVID-19 cases kept music venues and theaters dark, Pacific Chorale began virtually working on its film, which started with the ensemble individually recording their vocal parts at home. The program included months of coordinating, editing, virtual critiques 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 very first concert performance back on stage in more than a year at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in July. But with pandemic health and safety protocols still in place, that concert went on without a live audience. Now the public will be able to watch how the project unfolded and its grand finale as it will be locally televised at 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17 on PBS SoCal and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22 on KCET.
“When I started putting the program together, it was a cathartic process for me and I didn’t know quite what it was going to be,” Istad said, adding that it was originally intended to just be uploaded to the chorale’s YouTube page.
“I knew I wanted to reach people and acknowledge the moment and what we had been through and also craft a vision of hope for the future.”
The film features a behind-the-scenes look at how Pacific Chorale, members of Pacific Symphony and the soloists came together to perform J.S. Bach’s motet, “Jesu meine Freude,” which is interwoven with contemporary works including Moira Smiley’s arrangement of “Wayfaring Stranger,” Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” and Tarik O’Regan’s “All Things Common.”
“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 spaces interspersed for the Scriptures to be read and sermons to be delivered, Istad said. For this version, he worked in contemporary pieces of music to help translate Bach’s message of hope and joy for a wider audience.
Though directing a large ensemble virtually came with headaches and technical challenges, Istad said he is proud that his singers and the staff were able to pull it off. He also said the first performance back on stage, which included rapid COVID-19 tests and masking, was an overwhelming experience.
“That was so emotional and also odd because this is our home, but we felt like visitors for a moment,” he recalled of the return to the Segerstrom. “We started recording and we had to stop because I started crying and we all just kind of lost it … and lost it in a good way. It was a recognition of what had happened and every time we get together now, there is this moment where we all look at each other and we are just saying ‘We’re so grateful we’re doing this.’”
As for the pair of Grammy nominations for best choral performance and best engineered album, classical, Istad said that’s the cherry on top 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, Los Angeles Master Chorale, National Children’s Chorus, Pacific Chorale and eight soloists. The album was recorded during three sold-out evenings at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2019 and finally released on June 7 of this year.
When the nominations were announced, Istad immediately called up his colleague and friend Grant Gershon, who leads the Los Angeles Master Chorale, to celebrate. Both ensembles enlisted 100 of its singers each for Dudamel’s vision and along with the orchestra performed what Istad insists is “one of the biggest pieces ever written and it’s very complicated and very big and expensive to put on.”
The production alone nearly filled the 2,265-capacity venue as choir members had to occupy seats normally reserved for the audience and the orchestra spilled off onto the sides of the stage.
“It was incredible,” Istad recalled. “You just never see that many people in a hall like that making music. They obviously had to limit the number of patrons because we took up so many seats and it became the hottest ticket in town. Normally a piece like that is performed in a huge stadium, so to hear it in a concert hall like that was extraordinary because you could hear the detail and all the beauty of what Mahler wrote.”
Pacific Chorale’s “The Wayfaring Project”
Where to watch: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 17 on PBS SoCal and 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 22 on KCET
Also: Streaming on pbssocal.org and kcet.org.