Masters of the Pacific Chorale

Founding members Dunning and Major prepare for the opening of the group's 46th season Sunday at Segerstrom Concert Hall.

October 31, 2013|By Michael Miller
  • James Dunning and Rita Major, the longest standing members of the Pacific Chorale, pose with a record from the Chorale's first show in the Music and Media Building at the University of California, Irvine.
James Dunning and Rita Major, the longest standing members… (SCOTT SMELTZER,…)

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.

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