COSTA MESA — The conductor sits comfortably in a backstage room within a concert hall, which, he says, glorifies the qualities of the human voice.
John Alexander is retrospective. His decades leading the Pacific Chorale have added up, and yet the 67-year-old Laguna Beach resident remains as excited and as enthusiastic as ever.
He remarks that at this very moment, the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall is a perfect place to talk. It's the hall that heralded in the newest chapter of his accomplished artistic life. It's the grande dame of a venue Orange County finally got, and one made for choral music.
But things weren't always so grand. In 1972, when the 27-year-old choral conductor from New Orleans took the Pacific Chorale's leadership helm, Orange County was the backwoods. Its artistic merit was little to speak of. There was no major orchestra. There was not even a suitable place for one to play in.
But that didn't deter Alexander. He saw potential. He saw passion.
He still does. Come Sunday, Alexander will be celebrating his 40th anniversary season as the Pacific Chorale's artistic director.
Those 40 seasons show a period of remarkable transformation for the Costa Mesa-based ensemble that once was just another community group and has since become a national treasure.
'Out in the bean fields'
Alexander is from an extensive family tree of musicians. His father, Elliot Alexander, came from a family of 11 children, many of whom were choral musicians.
It's to no surprise, then, when Alexander notes that his "family had this long tradition of choral music."
Elliot Alexander carried on with the family legacy, becoming a conductor and also singing with the New Orleans Opera.
Those connections kept music alive and well in the household. The concertmistress of the New Orleans Symphony was a frequent houseguest and an early influence on young John.
"It was because of knowing her as a little kid that I decided I wanted to be a violinist," Alexander says. "I started studying with her when I was 5 years old."
Sometimes Alexander played his violin to music he wrote himself, as his father improvised on the piano.
"I think it's that very close relationship with my father — who was a classical musician, even though we lived in New Orleans — that helped build my career," he says.
When Alexander was about 8, he heard the famed American Boychoir perform. Eventually he auditioned and was accepted into the prestigious music boarding school based in Princeton, N.J.
It turned out to be a great four-year education for him. The group studied, traveled and toured. It was a major shaping point in his early life.
"I had more than the equivalent of a year's college music education at 12 years old," Alexander says.
But going to school "up north" did have one drawback: He found himself needing to lose his accent to fit in.