“Bach’s B-minor Mass? Wow. That is the mountaintop,” says Grant Gershon.
He should know. When it comes to choral music in Southern California, likely even the entire country, there isn’t a more prominent musician than the man who is both Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Resident Conductor & Chorus Master of Los Angeles Opera.
In 1964, the newly established Los Angeles Master Chorale gave its first ever concerts, under the baton of their founding Music Director, Roger Wagner. The work chosen to commemorate the occasion by the iconic choral conductor and Angeleno: the Mass in B-minor by Johann Sebastian Bach.
In about a week from now – fifty years later, almost to the day, from that inaugural concert – the Master Chorale will once again perform the same work of music, and their current Music Director happens to be another Angeleno and iconic choral conductor in his own right.
But that’s where the obvious similarities end. Whereas the LAMC founder had a larger-than-life persona, shown in publicity shots sporting a rakish moustache and smoking a pipe, its current leader is an Everyman, with a still-boyish face and casual demeanor that belies his position.
When Mr. Gershon steps onto the podium, however, it’s clear that he’s meant to be there. During concerts, he elicits impassioned and consistently excellent singing from his troops, in repertoire ranging from choral masterpieces and familiar warhorses to world premiere performances and obscure works. In rehearsals, he gets exactly what he wants without ever raising his voice; an occasional “shhh” to quell some percolating chatter being the limit of any kind of admonishment, and even that is given almost conversationally rather than pointedly.
He is consistently praised for his musicianship, knowledge, and dedication to his craft. He’s managed to hold positions at all three resident music organizations of The Music Center of Los Angeles County.
And yet, if not for a series of unlikely events occurring at the right points in his career, it may not have come to pass. He is quick to admit that conducting did not come easy to him, and he confesses that he almost gave it up as a career. Hard to imagine given his current success.
With that in mind, I asked to spend some time with Mr. Gershon, and he graciously let me crash his world. We chatted first in his LA Opera office, a comfortable space with a grand piano, a couch, and a wall packed with binders of music for operas from Monteverdi to Daniel Catán and everyone in between. Pictures of his wife, soprano Elissa Johnston, and children share space with a framed shot of him and Frederica von Stade, not to mention a personal note from Nelson Mandela. Later, we talked more over lunch; on other days, I even sat in on rehearsals of Handel’s Messiah and the aforementioned Bach Mass.
Here’s what I learned about his career, his approach to music-making, and the differences in his two prominent jobs.
From a very young age, the combined influence of piano and song made an important impact on the Alhambra native.
“My mother was a pianist and piano teacher, so I was always around music from a very young age. I have an older brother and sister, and they both were taking piano lessons when I was very young. I think it was sibling rivalry as much as anything – that, and the music of Mary Poppins; it came out when I was three or four years old, and I really loved that music, and I would plunk [the songs] out.”
He began taking formal lessons at five years old, but not from his mother. “We all studied with her teacher; she was wise enough not to try to teach us herself,” adding with a smile, “which, now that I have kids, I know would not work for me either.”
He would concentrate on the piano, becoming rather accomplished for his age. It wasn’t until his freshman year at Alhambra High School did that change. A rather public accident – the first in a series of unexpected incidents and opportunities throughout his life – would alter the course of his musical trajectory.
“On the first day of the gymnastics block in PE class, I spectacularly fell off the high bar. Actually, I shouldn’t say that I fell off because I never was on it! I was on a stool, and I made a lunge – I was very short – and I missed. I broke my left arm in really spectacular fashion with some nerve damage to my fingers, so I couldn’t play piano for several months.”
As it turned out, another musical outlet was available. He’d been accompanying the men’s vocal ensemble in the school. Since he was already taking the class, he ended up singing in the group. That led to what he refers to as his “life changing, ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ “ moment that summer:
“My folks shipped me off to Idyllwild music camp for their choir program. It was a two-week program, with the whole time spent on Mozart Requiem, and at the end of the two weeks, we performed it with the orchestra there.”
“It was my first exposure to a major work, but also it was making music with so many new friends and the social aspect of being in a choir was great, especially coming from playing the piano which is such an isolated endeavor. I knew at that point that I wanted to have a life in music.”
His injury would eventually heal completely, and he returned to studying piano seriously. At the same time, he never lost his love for choral singing, and when it came time to apply to colleges and music conservatories, he wanted to double major in voice and piano and go to a school with a very good choral program. “I ended up first at Chapman University, where William Hall was the reigning presence, and sang in the choirs there which were really strong.”
After three years, he decided to transfer to USC and major solely in piano, though he would also audition for and sing in the USC Chamber Singers. “It felt like all of the really extraordinary and impactful musical experiences were all singing in ensembles.”
Despite that, he would again concentrate in piano performance after graduating. “When I finished at ‘SC, I was really making my living as a pianist, doing everything under the sun, from chamber music, doing a lot of recitals, and playing for all the competitions in town – The Met competition and all that kind of stuff – to playing at the cocktail lounge at the L’Ermitage Hotel a couple of times a week and at this place called “The Verdi” in Santa Monica that was an opera restaurant. So at that point, I no longer had time to sing in choirs.”
Instead, his career took a different turn, albeit still related to vocal music.
“In 1988 I was hired by LA Opera as a pianist/coach. It was really when I took that position and really enjoyed it and being around the productions and being around all aspects – at the time, the music staff was basically just me and Randy Behr, LA Opera’s resident conductor and chorus master. I was the only pianist that first season, so it meant that I did everything under the sun: I was playing all the rehearsals, I did the harpsichord continuo for all the Mozart/DaPonte operas right off the bat, even doing back stage conducting – which, of course, I had absolutely no clue what I was doing at first, and took a couple of crash-course lessons from Randy and other people.”
So that sparked his love for conducting, right? Not really – at least not at first.
“I had such deep-seeded suspicion of anybody who had aspirations as a conductor. . . . . Friends that I’d hang out with in college and I would just diss conductors and aspiring conductors because it just seemed like, ‘Who would want to do that and be some jerk?!!’ So I didn’t have such high opinions, at least as a profession or an area to go into. Also, I just never really thought about it. I don’t think that I’d have any kind of natural aptitude towards that; I didn’t have any experience in leadership or being in front of people.”
“But I think that over the course of those years [as a pianist at LA Opera], one of the things I knew was that this was the kind of position that, in the classic old-school scheme of things, would lead to conducting. So I was aware of that, and I really did think that for me it was a natural maturation. As I developed a sense of my own musicianship and my own aesthetics, as it were, I just become more opinionated about what I liked and didn’t like.”
“LA Opera at that time didn’t have a Music Director, and we had a lot of guest conductors coming through. It has to be said that at that point, it was an extremely varied group of conductors, some very good ones and some kinda sketchy ones. And it was the sketchy ones that were the big motivators: I would be playing during rehearsals, and inwardly just seething, thinking, ‘Really?!! Is that what you’re going to do?’ So I started getting the bug a little bit.”
That conducting bug got even stronger when he began working with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic as the rehearsal pianist for the now-legendary Salzburg Festival performances of Messiaen’s opera, Saint François d’Assise.
“It was the cast party after opening night where first Ernest Fleischmann [legendary impresario and the LA Phil’s former Managing Director] took he me aside, and then Esa-Pekka took me aside, and said something like, ‘We think that you have gifts that would be well-suited to conducting, if that’s something you’re interested in.’ For me, it was perfect timing. I really had been thinking more and more that it was the next logical step, but I had no idea how to get started in it. It’s a really hard profession to get going in. . . .”
“The Philharmonic didn’t have an Assistant Conductor since before Esa-Pekka came on board. He had never had an assistant before, and as he told me, he had no idea what that role should be. But that was when Jane [Mr. Salonen’s wife] was pregnant with their second daughter and she was due in early March – right about the time they were getting ready to head off on tour, so they contacted me and they asked me to cover Esa-Pekka for those two weeks.”
“There were all sorts of concerts going on because they were getting ready for tour — three different programs and they were all gnarly. But of course I said yes, and I took this crash course in it all: The Rite of Spring, [Bartok’s] Concerto for Orchestra, both 1st and 3rd Bartok Piano Concertos with Fima [AKA pianist Yefim Bronfman], Beethoven 7, a couple of really obscure Beethoven overtures that Esa-Pekka liked to do back then, several other crazy pieces, and there must have been some Sibelius in there too.”
“Anyways, it was supposed to be a two-week period. It was Thursday night of the second week, just when began to feel like I’d made it through unscathed, because I was really NOT ready at all to actually be up in front of the band. Sure enough, at like 6pm, I get this call from Ernest, saying [as he simulates Fleischman’s resonant voice tinged with a South African accent], ‘Are you ready? Because she’s gone into labor and Esa-Pekka is in the hospital.’ Of course I said, ‘Yes.’”
Mr. Gershon pauses. “Then I put down the phone – and I start screaming. . . . ” He laughs, his arms gesticulating wildly as he remembers his panicked reaction and the explicatives he loudly repeated. “Elissa was running around getting my tuxedos ready for me as I was grabbing the scores.”
“That was my Philharmonic debut.”
According to the review in the Los Angeles Times by Chris Pasles, it went reasonably well:
“Gershon acquitted himself well under the trying circumstances. He was knowledgeable, calm, prepared, steady — and cautious. . . . Still, he did not lack ideas, even if this was not an ideal opportunity to make his own views on the works known.
He led the “Namensfeier” Overture with clarity, lightness and drive. He made Steven Stucky’s transcription of Purcell’s “Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary” transparent and dramatic.
He accompanied Catherine Ro, the 18-year-old soloist in Saint-Saens’ Violin Concerto No. 3, with sensitivity and consideration. . . .
Unfortunately, Gershon also led Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 in the distressingly fleet, characterless modern manner, honoring most if not all the repeats (it’s hard to keep track in the scherzo without a score) but without giving any reason to engage with the music.”
(Pasles, Chris: “MUSIC REVIEW: PREGNANCY PAUSE AT L.A. PHILHARMONIC,” Los Angeles Times; March 5, 1994)
The conductor himself is more self-deprecating as to what happened that night. “The orchestra just saved my ass, over and over again, I think. They were really great that night, really great. I had a lot of friends in the orchestra, I’d played chamber music with a lot of them, and I think a lot of them just enjoyed the drama of the situation; they made a choice to play well and to keep it together.”
Not long after, and despite of how Mr. Gershon thought that night went, the LA Phil officially offered him the position of Conducting Assistant. He was later promoted to Assistant Conductor, staying on for a total of three years.
“In retrospect, I think it was a just an incredibly serendipitous situation. It would never happen that way these days because the whole profession has become so much more professionalized in terms of young conductors: you do the Gustav Mahler Competition like [Gustavo] Dudamel, and you’re discovered in those situations; you do the conservatory conducting programs, and you start at a very young age. Everything is geared towards that.”
“I can’t imagine a conductor with no experience getting that kind of opportunity these days — remember, I was already in my early 30s at that point, I wasn’t some wunderkind, and especially considering that I was NOT a naturally gifted conductor. It really took me a long time.”
“The fact is [the LA Phil] provided me that opportunity and stuck with me. There were several times during that period when it was not good. I know it was not good. And there were a lot of points during that period in the mid- to late-90s when I thought, ‘You know, I should just hang this up and get back to just playing the piano. I love the piano, I’m really comfortable with it, it’s soooo much less stressful.’”
But he didn’t. He stuck to conducting.
During a rehearsal in Glendale earlier this week, as he put the Master Chorale through its paces in the Bach B-minor Mass, it’s hard to believe that he was ever that clueless at his profession.
Mr. Gershon runs an extremely efficient rehearsal. There are no wasted moments, no dawdling over what to do next, or wondering how he wants his singers to approach an upcoming passage. Instructions about what kind of dynamics, phrasing, or philosophical approach are offered in a concise way.
Even the context and history lessons he offers is purposeful. “While I give you a moment to rest your voices, let me tell you a little about this next section,” he says before giving a brief yet informative background about how Bach wrote parts of the B-minor Mass over the course of 25 years.
For over two hours, he shapes and hones various interpretive details with precision. Yet he rarely gives corrections, despite an occasional shaky entrance here or bit of messy blend there.
Only once does he actually take the time to try to fix a specific technical problem, pausing to ask the basses to repeat a particularly tricky passage on their own. There are no specifics offered, just a quiet, simple request with a smile: “Basses alone, please.” Once through and he asks, “Again, please.”
The section is repeated, after which he calmly says, “Yeah. I know some of you are seeing this for this first time, so I understand, and I offer mercy,” but gives no additional details on what to fix or how to fix it. One final time through the phrase, and what had been blurry was now clear. He smiles and offers, “Nice. Thank you,” and he’s immediately on to the next section.
He explains his approach this way: “It’s a lot different for me when I’m dealing with a group I don’t know so well, where I might feel like I need to explain more about the technical side of things. With the LAMC at this point, I’ve learned from experience that if you isolate something that they find it for themselves. In the end, the musicians have to find it for themselves, and rely on their teamwork and their own sense of pride within the section. In a performance, I can’t be a part of that.”
“I find that when you’re leading a rehearsal, you’re always making decisions in the moment. What needs to be addressed right now in the moment, nip in the bud – and what you can save for later, do. It’s an ever-evolving calculus. For a conductor, our performance is actually the rehearsal – we have to be absolutely on.”
He gives Mr. Salonen a great deal of credit for his conducting skill and rehearsal technique. “I learned from the master – Esa-Pekka – how to conduct, and watching him in all the rehearsal in the 90’s, it formed the basis for my own rehearsal technique. I owe him a lot. He is the master at managing time and keeping everyone engaged, even when there is heavy lifting to do.”
In addition to serving as a conducting boot camp, his tenure with the LA Phil offered the first opportunity to collaborate with the Los Angeles Master Chorale
“While I was at the Philharmonic, there were a couple of times when they engaged the Master Chorale to do contemporary concerts. I think the very first one was [with] Boulez conducting for a Green Umbrella concert. They asked me to prepare the chorus for that because it just wasn’t Paul’s thing [referring to Paul Salamunovich, then the LAMC Music Director]; he preferred not to.”
More opportunities to work with the Master Chorale ensued on contemporary pieces by Boulez, Ligeti, Varèse, and others. “So I began to develop a relationship with the Master Chorale. I had some friends that were singing in it, and I had known Paul a bit and even worked with John Currie [LAMC’s Music Director prior to Mr. Salamunovich] a bit as harpsichordist.”
Eventually, his tenure with the LA Phil ended, and he and his wife decided that moving to New York would better serve their careers. By then, he had made the transition from pianist to conductor, continuing to work with Mr. Salonen on projects like Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre, as well getting offers to be an assistant conductor in Europe. One of those offers came from Daniel Barenboim.
“I was working in Berlin [at the Staatsoper] with Barenboim. They were doing a double bill of the world premiere of What Next?, the Elliot Carter one-act opera, and Arnold Schoenberg’s domestic comedy, Von heute auf morgen [AKA From Today to Tomorrow], and they hired me to be assistant conductor for that. I was in Berlin for a couple of months.”
About the same time, Mr. Salamunovich announced his retirement, and the Master Chorale found itself hunting for a new Music Director. Mr. Gershon became a candidate, flying back and forth from Berlin for the interviews.
“When Paul announced he was retiring, a few people contacted me to let me know, [and to see] if I were interested in putting my hat in the ring and being part of the mix of the search. I thought, ‘This could be really interesting,’ especially connecting back to my roots. But I didn’t think there was much of a chance of them hiring someone like me with little to no experience actually leading performances with the chorus since I’d only done this preparation work [with the LA Phil].”
He was wrong. In the summer of 1999, he got rave reviews in preparing the Master Chorale for their role in a performance of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Less than a year later, Grant Gershon was offered the job as their new Music Director. But the LAMC had competition.
“It was so funny. . . . When I got the call offering me the position, either the day before or the day after I got a call from Daniel Barenboim offering me the permanent position of Assistant Conductor at the Staatsoper Berlin.” Positions like this are typically a key step in a conductor’s career and are therefore highly coveted.
He smiles and shakes his head in seeming disbelief. “That was a really weird choice. I talked to a lot of people whose opinions I really valued. I knew where my heart was, and that was to take the Master Chorale position, primarily because it was a Music Director position.”
“I felt that at that point, I’d been an assistant conductor or musical assistant ever since 1988 when I started at LA Opera, and I really wanted to have my own ensemble. And, at that point, it became clear that the Master Chorale would become a resident company at Disney Hall. All of those things really made me lean to take this job.”
“Coming to the Master Chorale was sort of like a homecoming, reconnecting with this repertoire, with being in and around choirs which were so much a part of my heart and soul. It was really a revelation for me to have that reconnection.”
[TO BE CONTINUED . . . click HERE for Part 2]
- Grant Gershon: photo by CK Dexter Haven
- Ernest Fleischmann: photo courtesy of Lebrecht Music & Arts
- Esa-Pekka Salonen: photo courtesy of Last.fm