Ask any classical musician: Playing Mozart is tough. It requires a combination of accuracy, virtuosity, sensitivity, balance and myriad other qualities working together to make something devilishly difficult seem effortless.

Now imagine you’re performing Mozart live at the Hollywood Bowl in front of thousands. But it’s not just a concert. You’re part of a massive ensemble accompanying a showing of “Amadeus,” director Miloš Forman’s celebrated 1984 film about Mozart. You’re presenting the original film score live — cueing exactly to the action, observing all the sudden starts and stops, sometimes in mid-phrase.

Pacific Chorale’s artistic director Robert Istad. Credit: Photo courtesy of Pacific Chorale/Doug Gifford Photography

That’s the daunting task that Orange County’s Pacific Chorale will tackle on Aug. 23. Under the direction of artistic director Robert Istad, Chorale members will learn the choral parts, then combine forces with members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to accompany the Oscar-winning film while it’s being shown on a giant screen. The score is predominantly Mozart’s compositions, and the centerpiece of the movie, both musically and dramatically, focuses on the mysterious circumstances surrounding the commission and composition of Mozart’s only requiem mass.

The challenges of accompanying a film in which music plays a seminal role are immense, Istad said.

“Oftentimes we’re starting in the middle of a movement. Sometimes there’s a soloist actually singing on camera, and then the choir has to come in and accompany them. Sometimes a choir starts singing on film and then our choir will join them. Trying to line us up with the performance events of the film is what I’m working on the most.” 

Accompanying a film presents other challenges, Istad said — interpretation, for one.

“A big part of the preparation has been really listening to the film score and making sure that the interpretation that I’m preparing really lines up with the recordings that they used in the film, as opposed to Robert Istad’s idea of the Mozart’s Requiem, or whatever.”

Istad said the process is profoundly different from collaborating with another musical group. “Normally, I would talk to the conductor about tempos and other considerations. I would say (to the conductor of the orchestra), ‘What’s your concept of the Mozart Requiem?’ And then we would talk through it and collaborate on certain things. We’d both be contributing to the interpretation as a whole. And as a result of that process I would know what to do and how to conduct the choir. But in this case, we’re having to bow down to the movie. It’s dictating the interpretation, and we have to follow.”

For all the complexity required, the performance has to come together very quickly, Istad said.

‘Amadeus’ Live in Concert

When: 8 p.m. Aug. 23

Where: Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N Highland Ave, Los Angeles

Tickets: $19-$79

Contact: hollywoodbowl.com

“We’re with the L.A. Phil only two times in rehearsal. At the first rehearsal, Sarah Hicks, their conductor for this event, will tackle the more complicated sections. And then at the second rehearsal we’ll run the film and perform with it in real time.”

Istad pointed out that the ultimate responsibility for keeping things together falls to Hicks. “She’s tackling the Herculean job of lining up all the gathered musical forces and starting and stopping them on cue. It all comes down to her.”

Istad said the challenges of performing with the film are more than counterbalanced by the joy of performing some of Mozart’s most famous works using the combined forces of a large choir and a full orchestra. “The most fun about this whole piece is that you’re singing Mozart’s greatest hits. When else do you get to sing movements from the Requiem and all these wonderful opera choruses? It’s really fun.”

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One of the most enjoyable moments for Istad is the performance of the mock opera — a vaudeville scene set at the Theater an der Wieden in which many of Mozart’s most famous operatic moments are parodied by a strange cast of comic actors and, memorably, a huge pantomime horse. “You know, that moment is so much fun —  it’s grotesquely funny. I think the choir’s going to have a good time doing that.”

Landing Orange County’s First Classical Grammy

It’s been a busy and rewarding year so far for the Pacific Chorale. The group made history when it became the first Orange County classical musical ensemble to win a Grammy Award. They won in the category of Choral Performance at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards ceremony in Las Vegas on April 3.

The chorale – along with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Los Angeles Children’s Chorus, National Children’s Chorus and eight soloists all under the baton of LA Philharmonic conductor Gustavo Dudamel – won the Grammy for a recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 in E-flat Major, the “Symphony of a Thousand.” The recording also garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album, Classical.

Istad was awed and inspired by the forces involved in the massive project.

“When we put it together, it was a hundred singers from the (Los Angeles) Master Chorale and a hundred from Pacific Chorale. We really worked hard to make sure that we put together the very best possible choral forces that we could. Because when else are you going to have a chance to do that work in Disney Hall with two professional choirs and a great symphony orchestra?”

Pacific Chorale’s 2022-23 season has been announced. It includes the works of composers Maurice Duruflé and Jocelyn Hagen (Oct. 15), two separate holiday concert programs (“Carols by Candlelight” on Dec. 3 and 7 and “‘Tis the Season!” on Dec. 18 and 19), Monteverdi’s Vespers (March 4, 2023), and the music of groundbreaking composer Florence Price together with Haydn’s Nelson Mass (May 20).  

Istad is pleased with the chorale’s direction as it emerges from the pandemic. “I’m really thrilled with the sound that we’re getting. We’ve made a lot of changes in personnel and in the way that we work generally at the chorale. I’m also happy that everyone in the chorale seems really interested in exploring new ideas. These days, any good performing arts group is expected to experiment and push some boundaries, and we’re doing that.”

Paul Hodgins is the founding editor of Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at phodgins@voiceofoc.org.


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