Interviews / Los Angeles Master Chorale / Los Angeles Opera / Music News & Info: Classical

Spending time with Grant Gershon (Part 2 of 2): what he looks for in singers, meeting Nelson Mandela, and more

 

Grant Gershon - photo by Steve CohnThis coming Sunday marks the final concert of the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s landmark 50th Anniversary Season. For the occasion, Music Director Grant Gershon has put together a typically forward-looking program of works by Shawn Kirchner, David Lang, Francisco Núñez, Gabriela Lena Frank, and – last but certainly not least – Esa-Pekka Salonen. All works except for the Frank will be given their world premieres.

As if preparing all of those pieces weren’t enough, it’s been an eventful few weeks for Mr. Gershon.

Given all of this, it’s the perfect time to share part two of my interview with the Los Angeles conductor.

Part One focused on his childhood and early professional career, including his time as rehearsal pianist with Los Angeles Opera and his tenure as Assistant Conductor to Esa-Pekka Salonen with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

In this second part, we discuss:

  • His two current jobs – Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Opera’s Resident Conductor & Chorus Master – and differences between them, both in how he approaches them and what he looks for when choosing singers for those ensembles
  • Advice for up-and-coming musicians, particularly the notion that the most nondescript gigs can sometimes lead to incredible opportunities and life-changing moments
  • Future conducting hopes and plans, both inside and outside of Los Angeles

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When Grant Gershon took over as the Los Angeles Master Chorale’s Music Director, he found an ensemble that was on firm artistic and administrative footing. His predecessor, the late Paul Salamunovich, had returned the group to its roots, re-emphasizing the distinctive “pyramid sound” that was the hallmark of founding Music Director, Roger Wagner. Morale amongst the singers was up. Attendance was solid.

And yet, the organization was ready for a change. For most of its history, the Master Chorale was regularly performing contemporary music by composers like Boulez, Ligeti, and Adams, among others – yet almost all of this music was done under the auspices of the LA Phil’s season, not its own. Mr. Salamunovich, a world-renowned expert on Gregorian Chant who had prepared the chorale for many contemporary works (including a performance of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms being conducted by the composer himself), wasn’t incapable of handling complex music, but chose to focus the bulk of the LAMC’s subscriber series in other directions.

“I very specifically got feedback from the singers, the board, and indirectly from audiences as well that people were ready for a change of focus. I really felt at the time, and even more looking back on it, that I was in the ideal position. The organization was strong, financially it was on solid footing, artistically it was in a good place, but there seemed to be a universal feeling that it needed to expand repertoire, to become more progressive, to explore more varied range of music. Those were my marching orders.”

“The singers very clearly expressed to me that they wanted to be challenged, and that they felt like there were aspects of their artistry that were underutilized, and that they really wanted to expand. What better position could a person be in as an incoming Music Director than to have that general feeling from all around the organization. So I really wanted to make sure that in my first season that it was a slate of concerts that clearly marked a new beginning.”

His choices for his first concerts as Music Director – Spem in allium by Thomas Tallis, Bruckner’s Te Deum, and Itaipu by Philip Glass – neatly encapsulated what he has continued to do at the helm of the Master Chorale: celebrate its traditions while continuing to push it forward and outward.

“I still love that program because it seems a little off the wall, but all the pieces – when you hear them, they all clearly relate to each other, and there are aspects to each piece that illuminate each other. The variety of sonic landscapes created within a single concert is something I enjoyed over the years. Being eclectic, showing off what the group can do is really fun as well. It really is a great situation to be in.”

The new direction also received an endorsement from an important source: Paul Salamunovich gave the new Music Director his own stamp of approval.

When Mr. Salamunovich first took on the role, he got some very specific advice from Mr. Wagner: “ ‘get rid of half the sopranos and hire basses’ to get back to the old sound.” Given that, did he offer his successor any advice of his own?

“No, he didn’t. He was very supportive of me, which I really appreciated. I know it could’ve been a strange transition because even though we knew each other and had worked together a bit, I was obviously coming from a whole different kind of background. I’m sure there were a lot of people around the organization, audience members, donors, and singers, and other supporters who must have been raising eyebrows and scratching heads, asking ‘What does this mean for the tradition here?’ The fact that in that transition period that Paul came out very strongly for me and publicly stated that I was his candidate of choice was great. Beyond that, I don’t think that he gave me concrete advice or anything like that.”

GG 06 - David JohnstonOver the years, Mr. Gershon has proven to be prescient enough to know how and when to build upon the Master Chorale’s musical foundations. It is now a dozen years into his tenure and more often than not, the chorus still has a warm, resonant, male-centric sound that Mr. Wagner created and Mr. Salamunovich nurtured.

“The personnel is quite different; I would guess 50% or less [of the current Master Chorale’s singers] were around back then. I do think it is in the bones of the group as the point of departure.”

And depart from that sound he often does – but only as appropriate, and within context. “Frankly, I was never really that interested in changing the sound of the group as much as I was simply making it more flexible and more specific, so that we could tap into that sound when it was appropriate for certain repertoire: if we were singing English choral music, we could sound like a great [English] choir; if we were singing German that you could close your eyes and think that you were in Berlin or Vienna; even more so with French music, and especially American music.”

“It just seemed to me that the great thing about a choir is that you can be a chameleon. You’re not limited by a 17th century instrument or an instrument that’s created for a specific kind of repertory. Singing is part of every country, every culture, and every tradition. For me, that’s one of the exciting aspects of coming to the chorale.”

He expounded on one particular American genre with which fans of the classical choral repertoire are less likely to be familiar: “I’ve developed a love for shape-note singing, which is about as far from the signature sound of the chorale as you can get. It’s this very earthy, robust, and rough vocal approach. In fact, I went to a ‘shape-note sing’ ten or eleven years ago when I was first becoming aware of it, and I was astonished at just how loud and physical and nasal it was. I asked one of the singers, ‘How would you characterize this singing? How would you approach it?’ And he said, ‘Well, the general rule is if you can hear the person next to you, you’re not singing loud enough.’ ”

This flexibility in repertoire is just the latest example of what ultimately makes the Los Angeles Master Chorale unique among the great large vocal ensembles in the United States – its independence. Unlike LAMC’s founder, Roger Wagner, the two other names of that era most associated as founders of great choral ensembles, Robert Shaw and Margaret Hillis, did so as adjunct groups within the friendly – and somewhat restrictive – confines of a symphony orchestra. Mr. Gershon revels in this distinction.

“It’s a big difference. I’ve talked about this a lot, especially this year because of the 50th anniversary [of the Master Chorale’s first concert], just how unique it is from its founding that when they decided to make The Music Center in Los Angeles, they also decided that it should have its own resident professional chorus. It didn’t happen at Lincoln Center. It didn’t happen at Kennedy Center. “

“It’s created this fantastic situation where we have our own identity, are able to produce our own concerts, and yet still able to have this really important relationship with the Philharmonic too – we are the de facto Los Angeles Philharmonic chorus – but we’re able to explore all other aspects of choral music that Chicago Symphony Chorus, Atlanta Symphony, and all these other organizations that have wonderful symphonic choirs, don’t because they don’t have that balance that [we have and] our audience enjoys.”

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LAMC-02-Steve-Cohn

With a more flexible choral sound and repertoire comes a need for more flexible choral singers. We discussed how he finds and chooses the right singers for the Master Chorale. It is a process that would be familiar to most choral singers, just amped up on steroids given the level of talent in the applicant pool and the relatively small number of spots that open up in any given year.

“We’re able to be really, really picky at this point, definitely more so than ever before. Certainly, the main [university choral programs] in town – USC, Cal State Long Beach, Chapman, and others – are turning out really talented ensemble singers in startlingly high numbers.”

“We have auditions every year in January. Each member of the Chorale who’s been a member for more than 3 seasons audition every other year. Before that, they audition every year. There’s certain language that it’s assumed they’ll be retained unless there’s some issue that’s come up. Overall, in any given year, there are three to eight singers on average that will leave: they’re moving or are pursuing other interests, some going on to solo careers, with the Master Chorale having been a weigh station for them after college, which is great. It’d be very rare for us to ever have more than ten singers out of 115 change from year to year.”

“So the competition to get into the group and to stay in the group is really keen, which again, it creates a situation where I have an incredible luxury in terms of casting and hiring for the chorale. In any given year, you could make a really terrific chamber choir out of the people [to whom I have to say], ‘Sorry, but not this year.’”

“We can be very choosy about who we bring into the group, and I think that becomes clear as a listener. I think the level, certainly in the twelve years I’ve been here, has continued to excel and grow. It’s a combination of vocal ability and musicianship. They have to be gifted singers, they have to have the instrument and the ability to modify their sound to blend into the ensemble, of course. Flawless intonation is kind of a given.”

The process through this point allows them to identify excellent individual singers, but does not yet clarify how well they can blend with others or if they can match that signature LA Master Chorale sound. That leads to the next phase of the challenge faced by singers aspiring to join the group.

“We have a quartet of singers [from the Master Chorale] that are at the auditions. So if we’re auditioning sopranos, the soprano from the group will lay out, and that person will come in. By the time [a new singer] gets to that stage in the audition, they’ve already been through this very rigorous sight-singing, musicianship, and tonal memory test. If they make it to the round with the quartet, we let people know what the music is so that they don’t need to be sight-reading it: I’m much more interested in seeing how they blend into the ensemble, and also how they react musically, if they have the musical sophistication to interact in the moment with the other singers. In the best cases, someone will come in who will actually make the other singers sound better. When that happens, it’s a slam dunk and we have to find a place for them.”

The Master Chorale is not the only chorus for which Mr. Gershon auditions and hires singers – he also holds the lead choral position with LA Opera. Therefore, you may think that he’d have similar requirement for both ensembles. Not the case.

“In the Master Chorale, I’d say there’s a much wider mix of different kinds of voices because we’re really kind of a one stop shop of choral music. I want to make sure that we have some singers that are very comfortable in early music and very sophisticated in that, and other voices that are going to be really comfortable in big symphonic calls – [the musicians in the LA Phil] like to play, and with Gustavo, he’s sensitive to balance, but he doesn’t want to spend all day [gesturing to the orchestra to play softer]. Then there other singers that are comfortable in pop and have that kind of versatility. It’s great to have that in the mix as well. Of course, having people that can float from one style to the other is great.”

“There are differences [with the Los Angeles Opera Chorus], even in terms of the musical skills required. For instance, we don’t put an emphasis on sight-singing in the opera. We do a little bit of probing in that area, but because we generally have more time to prepare with the opera chorus and also through the course of stage rehearsals, it isn’t as critical for people to be able to pick up something very, very quickly like it is in the Master Chorale. At the same time, the size and scale of the voice is a different mix in the opera chorus, because we’re generally using a smaller chorus to project into a larger hall, and we’re very rarely singing a capella. So they have to be fairly rich, full voices, or else they might sing beautifully but they won’t get passed the footlights.”

“The other thing with the opera is having singers who are comfortable on stage and who have stage experience, who aren’t going to have a stage director pulling out their hair, saying ‘God, these people cannot walk while they sing!’”

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Tosca BTS - Placido Domingo and Grant Gershon

Grant Gershon’s 2007 appointment by Plácido Domingo and James Conlon to become the Resident Conductor and Chorus Master of LA Opera represented the next step in his evolving career as well as a return to the place where that career began, all while allowing him to maintain his position with the Master Chorale.

It seemed like a natural fit, an easy transition given his experience as both the opera’s rehearsal pianist and vocal coach and a choral conductor; however, conducting a full-blown opera is a different beast from merely running a rehearsal or prepping a chorus. So given that difference, what’s it like now living a dual life as both a choral conductor and opera conductor?

“I’m really happy that I’m both. They’re really different in a lot of ways. Of course, the things that connect them are the voice and the words, attention to the text and the drama – which I feel should be just as strong in a choral performance as in an opera. But the things that separate them are much more clear.”

“To me the biggest difference is the level of inherent chaos as opposed to concert work, choral or symphonic. I know I’ve heard James [Conlon] expound upon this as well: you have so much less control in the pit than you do on the podium. There are so many more things that can go wrong in an opera performance, generally, than a concert performance. There are so many more variables, the distances are so much greater, the fact that some of the [instrumental] players will have a very hard time hearing the stage, so you can’t just depend on people using their ears for the ensemble. You have every kind of catastrophe that can happen on stage, which is well documented. Because of that, it is really invigorating.”

“The other thing that’s different is that generally, conducting an opera, you’re much more necessary. Conducting a well-rehearsed concert, especially of the standard repertoire, you know the concert probably will go just as well without you on the podium. There’ll be a few things here and there, like starting and stopping will be more difficult, and hopefully the performance will be more vivid and focused – but it would happen. Whereas with an opera, it would be complete chaos. So because of that, it’s much more satisfying. There’s much more raison d’etre conducting opera.”

“I know, for myself, that I’ll lose a couple of pounds conducting an opera performance.” He laughs as he wipes imaginary sweat from his brow, continuing, “Whereas – hmmmm, maybe I’ll lose a couple of ounces conducting a concert?”

Despite those differences, he doesn’t change his approach when he’s conducting an opera vs. when he’s conducting a choral or orchestral concert.

“No, I don’t think so, I really don’t. In both cases, obviously it’s the conductor’s job to control the flow, as Esa-Pekka would like to say, but I think that as much as it’s also part of our world to infuse the performance with a kind of energy and specific emotion and emotional connections. I find that’s exactly the same whether I’m conduct a concert performance or an opera.”

“To me, it has to be completely in the moment – and circular as well. I’m taking cues from what I’m receiving back and channeling that. The interpretation and the energy are really circular. It’s not just me as a conductor dictating, “This is how it goes always and forever more.” It’s very much based on the individual people you’re working with and how they act in the moment.”

How about those instances when he’s not actually the one conducting the performance, but instead preparing for a chorus under another conductor?

“It’s somewhat different in that when I’m preparing it for my own concert, I can be very specific about the way we want to shape the piece together and all of the little musical decisions have to be made. We can put that together with great confidence and specificity from the very beginning. When I’m preparing for somebody else, my philosophy has always been to make strong choices. When possible, I’ll find out from the conductor specifics about tempo, but that’s kind of the exception to the rule. I’ve found with most conductors they’re either too focused on other projects or completely trusting of me, so I usually don’t get too much input from the conductor before we do the rehearsal.”

Grant Gershon - photo by David Johnston“These [singers] are good enough that they can change and do whatever the conductor asks, but I think its better to present something that’s very clear and very specific, and then let the conductor do what they will with it rather than defer and present something that’s not fully formed, because then it won’t present the group as well. And if the conductor doesn’t address a specific area, I want to make sure that we know what we’re doing and that the we have a game plan in place that is strong.”

“I think part of that is a luxury of working with singers who are really sophisticated and flexible. They can make changes and adapt truly at the drop of a hat. Conductors only have to ask one time and they’ll do it – there’s great pride in that. I will say my favorite kinds of situations are when I’m working with a conductor like Esa-Pekka, Gustavo, or James where I know already what their aesthetic is and what their priorities will be and that I can guess with a lot of confidence, even if it’s a piece I’m doing with them for the first time.”

“If I’m working with a conductor for the first time and I don’t have a lot of information or haven’t been able to reference a recording from that conductor, there’s always that sense if I hand it off, I hope they will do our ensemble justice, frankly, and that the group will be able to shine. Almost always that’s the case. Certainly at the Philharmonic, they’re very savvy about who the list of conductors are, but for a guest conductor to get the privilege of working with the Master Chorale – which is not an inexpensive proposition – they seem to reserve that for the conductors that they have the most respect for. It seems to always work out well.”

A quick look at the LA Phil’s schedule over the past couple of years, both at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, seems to bear that out. The list of names conducting programs which include the Master Chorale are a veritable who’s who in big-name conductors: Dudamel, Salonen, Dutoit, Frühbeck de Burgos, Tilson-Thomas, and Slatkin.

Oh, and there’s one more name to add to that distinguished list: Grant Gershon. Earlier this year, he climbed their podium again to lead a rare performance of the “Rome” section of the monumental Philip Glass work, the CIVIL warS.  In fact, he happens to be the only Music Director in the history of the Los Angeles Master Chorale to conduct a Los Angeles Philharmonic subscription concert.

Quite a feat considering how he described his first, difficult experiences with the orchestra.

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We continued to talk more about his career and how his professional journey took so many unexpected turns to get this point. I mentioned the well-worn phrase, “If I only knew then what I know now,” and I asked him to share his thoughts about what he thought was most important for a young musician – singer or instrumentalist – to know to help in him/her at the beginning of a professional career.

He didn’t hesitate: “Among the most important things is to try to take EVERY performing opportunity that comes your way, and to be open to as many kinds of experiences.”

“For both singers and instrumentalists these days, the way that one tends to make a career is so multi-faceted and all over the place. It’s very rare to graduate from school and immediately go into a professional full-time orchestra or become a resident artist at an opera company or something. Your career is going to be made of so many different elements. So the more versatile you are, the more experience in different kinds of situations you have, the easier it will be to find a way to make a living.”

“The corollary of that is to make sure that every time you go out there, you really on top of your game and at the best you can be, and just assume there will be some door that will open because of this particular gig you’ve taken or this particular audition, because you really never know. I really found that out in my own experience.”

“I remember I got called in the early ‘90s to play piano for Kiri Te Kanawa on ‘The Tonight Show.’ That really came out of the blue, and that was because some guy who was one of the arrangers on ‘The Tonight Show’ had heard me, I think, at a bar that I played in. They called me out of the blue because she was going to sing ‘O mio babbino caro’ for Jay Leno. So I came over, I met Kiri, and we went through it. It was fun, I liked her a lot, and I played ‘O mio babbino caro,’ she went back to London, and that was that.”

“Three or four months later, I pick up a message on my answering machine, and it’s Kiri Te Kanawa: she says she has a recital tour in Canada and Chicago coming up, and wants to know if I’m interested. She was going to be up in Calgary for another tour, so she flies me up to Calgary to go through a bunch of repertoire to see if it’d be a good match, and I end up playing that recital tour. Then I go to South Africa with her, and we played for Nelson Mandela: we gave a benefit concert for the Nelson Mandela Children’s fund; he introduced us, sat in the front row, then we had dinner with him afterwards.”

“All of that because of a bar gig.”

Grant Gershon - Nelson Mandela autograph

“I really do emphasize to people that you just never know. I’ve seen that with so many people and so many situations where a gig that didn’t seem like it would necessarily have any sort of legs or lead to anything would open a door. Or not, and it turns out to be a dead-end, and that’s fine, you’ll be better off for the next one. But if you bomb in any kind of situation, the same thing is likely to happen the opposite way – that’s a door slammed shut that will be very difficult to pry open again.”

“I also think back to my days a rehearsal pianist. I have to say that it’s something I enjoyed and I took VERY seriously — learning opera scores at the piano so that they really sounded great to me. Studying the orchestra scores and recreating as much as I could at the piano: the feel of the orchestra and the experience for the singers and for the conductors.”

John Adams, David Lang, Steve Reich, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars, Nico Muhly“That investment is how I hooked up with Peter [Sellars] and John Adams was playing the rehearsals for Nixon in China when it came here. That should’ve been just a one-shot deal, but they ended up calling me and having me come to Paris and Frankfurt, which led to the Salzburg [Festival]. Then John called me out of the blue in 1995 to conduct this crazy piece, I Was Looking at the Ceiling and I Saw the Sky. It was all based on being a rehearsal pianist at LA Opera”

“Take whatever work, even if it seems kind of menial; it could pay off in some weird way.”

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It certainly has paid off for him. Given his two positions with the Master Chorale and LA Opera, he’s now firmly ensconced among the highest levels of cultural leaders in Southern California. Does he manage to branch out and conduct elsewhere in the country? Yes – but only when and how it suits him.

“Because of these two jobs where the seasons run like a school year, from September to June, what it means is that I’m not able to travel much during the season. But during the summers, I try to look very carefully for opportunities. I was at Wolf Trap [outside of Washington DC] last summer, and it looks like I’ll be back there this summer. That’s a nice situation with the National Symphony where we do semi-staged productions, La Traviata for example last year. The year before was mainly in Chile, doing Il Postino, and Santa Fe.”

“For me, the right balance is being able to work out-of-town over the summer and take something on that’s very interesting and stimulating. But one of the things I’ve learned about myself is that I think I really work best and am certainly most comfortable and effective when I’m very project based. I’m definitely not the kind of conductor that goes week-to-week with different concerts and different venues.”

“If I’m working an opera where you have several weeks of intensive rehearsals, it’s similar to the Master Chorale where we have essentially, on average, one program per month; and then there’s the extra stuff with the Philharmonic. That just suits my nature. I love really being able to dig into something. I find this combination being at LA Opera and at Master Chorale very satisfying. And because in the summer I also have the opportunity to do something project based. I’m in a really good place right now.”

The discussion turned to what he’d like to be conducting in the future, here in Los Angeles or anywhere else.

“The one piece that I’d dearly love to revisit, but only if there was a recording involved because of the scale and the expense, is the Christopher Rouse Requiem that we premiered several years back.”

Until the New York Philharmonic’s very well-received concerts this past May, no one else had performed it.

“I think it’s one of the major choral/orchestra works of the past 50 years. It kind of fell into our laps and we were game and naïve enough to jump at it, and it was an incredible experience. I’d love to go back, especially given where this organization and ensemble are, but again, to do it as a one-off concert performance, I can’t justify that.”

“I’m always looking for ways to expand the repertoire of the ensemble, and to expand the experience as well. For instance, Peter and I have been talking over the past couple of years about what kind of project, probably a capella or close to it, that would work well to create a stage version, which is something I’d love to explore. We’re continuing to commission a pretty significant number of new works.”

And how about anything that didn’t involve voices?

“I think it’d be a hoot. It’s been quite some time actually since I did something that didn’t involve voices at all. I think that my natural history and my gifts, as it were, are suited to vocal music, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out. Le sacre du printemps, which I’ve never done, would be a bucket list item at this point.”

With both LA Master Chorale and LA Opera keeping him busy through the next few years, it might be a while before he gets to anything else. In the meantime, we’ll keep enjoying his work with singers.

RELATED POST:

Grant Gershon in his office (photo by CK Dexter Haven for All is Yar, www.allisyar.com)

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Photo credits:

  • Grant Gershon conducting (close-up); Los Angeles Master Chorale:  photos by Steve Cohn
  • Grant Gershon portrait:  photo by David Johnston
  • Placido Domingo and Grant Gershon:  courtesy of Los Angeles Opera
  • Book signed by Nelson Mandela:  courtesy of Grant Gershon
  • Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars, and composers:  courtesy of the Los Angeles Master Chorale
  • Grant Gershon in office:  photo by CK Dexter Haven
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One thought on “Spending time with Grant Gershon (Part 2 of 2): what he looks for in singers, meeting Nelson Mandela, and more

  1. Pingback: Spending Time with Grant Gershon, Part 2 | Choirpundit

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