Pacific Chorale has been back home this season, with concerts at Segerstrom Hall that began in October with Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil and continue this month with a happy holiday program, “Tis the Season!” But the return to live performances was far from straightforward for the Orange County chorus. A film, The Wayfaring Project, airing this month on Southern California’s PBS stations, traces the group’s journey back to the concert hall.
Conceived by Artistic Director Robert Istad and recorded earlier this year, the hour-long program follows the fluctuations in pandemic performance restrictions for the choir, from each singer at home to the ensemble outdoors to the first steps back onstage. A piece by J.S. Bach, Istad explained, is the connecting thread through all these changes.
“Bach composed Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, during a particularly difficult time of loss in his community of Leipzig,” he said. “His mission to console the listener is woven into [the] fabric [of the music].”
The Wayfaring Project takes movements from Bach’s liturgical work and intersperses performances of other, contemporary pieces between them. “He understood that readings and messages would be inserted between the paired movements,” Istad said of the composer. “I found great inspiration in the liturgical structure of the motet and decided it might be interesting to insert modern choral works in place of the spoken words of the service.”
That’s where the variety and different recording setups come in. For Bach’s motet, Pacific Chorale was joined onstage at Segerstrom Hall by musicians from Pacific Symphony, with Istad conducting. But for selections recorded earlier in 2021, like the project’s title song, the group had to get creative.
“Many of the virtual performances in The Wayfaring Project were captured by our singers individually, at home,” Istad explained. “The complication of aligning voices with videos was even more challenging for … Moira Smiley’s arrangement of ‘Wayfaring Stranger.’ Her incredible piece incorporates body percussion and movement that we wanted to capture for our viewers.”
An audio and video production team, Arts Laureate, along with Los Angeles-based cinematographer Jeff Dolen, helped bring Pacific Chorale’s vision to life.
Back and forth between the traditional and the contemporary, The Wayfaring Project ends on an uplifting note. “I hoped these performances would broaden Bach’s message of peace,” Istad said. “I purposefully selected works both secular and from other faith traditions to further embrace a more universal message of hope.” Other music on the program includes Samuel Barber’s Sure on This Shining Night, Tarik O’Regan’s All Things Common, and even an arrangement of Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.”
Istad ties it back to a larger aim that starts with the Baroque composer. “The skeletal structure Bach created expresses [one particular] ceremony for grief — for understanding — and for moving forward in life,” he said. “I hope that the interpolated pieces will inspire our viewers to craft their own, personal narrative of reconciliation.”