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

A chat with Jean Davidson, new President & CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

Jean DavidsonJean Davidson is six months into her job as President & CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and in some ways, she’s still settling in.

She’s lived much of the past two decades in New York.  Her most recent ten years were spent as the administrative yin to the artistic yang of acclaimed choreographer Bill T. Jones.  Before that, she was at the helm of Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project.  And because of that, she’s definitely out of practice when it comes to driving a car, especially in the tangle of streets and freeways in LA.

So not surprisingly, she lives in Downtown Los Angeles within a reasonable stroll of Walt Disney Concert Hall.  “I love it here in the Arts District.  It kind of reminds me of Brooklyn in many ways, and it’s only a $3 Uber to the Music Center.  I even like walking there and back when the days are longer.”

She hasn’t quite sorted out the difference between “Highway 110 and Highway 101” – neither calling them “freeways” nor referring to them as “The 110” or “The 101” as locals are famous for doing – mainly because she hasn’t driven them with any frequency yet.

“My husband, Kojiro Umezaki, drives them more since he is on the music faculty at UC Irvine. Sometimes he takes the train to Orange County, but he drives regularly.  So usually when we’re together and we need to go somewhere, he drives.  The one time I drove, apparently it didn’t go very well because he said something like, ‘Okay, maybe we shouldn’t do that too often.’ [laughing]”

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Ms. Davidson is cheerful and friendly.  She has a casual confidence that is absent the swagger or stiffness displayed by many Chief Executives of either gender in any industry.  But make no mistake, the confidence is there in spades, combined with a probing mind and an intense love for The Arts in all its machinations.

As we’re enjoying an easygoing chat in a café within her adopted DTLA neighborhood, I ask Ms. Davidson:  how familiar was she with the Master Chorale before she tossed her hat in the ring for the top job?

“Not at all,” she freely admits.  “That’s the great thing, right?!  Not at all.  A friend of mine knew I was looking to relocate to Los Angeles and sent me a note with the position posting.  I had heard about the Music Center, the LA Phil, LA Opera, and Center Theatre Group, but I’d never heard of the Master Chorale.”

Gershon + LAMC - A Good Understanding (Muhly)“So the first thing I did was go to iTunes to look for recordings, and the first thing I found was their Nico Muhly recording.  We had worked with him on a project for New York Live Arts, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s cool.’  And then I listened and said, ‘Wow, that’s really beautiful.  I need to hear more!”  So I found the Gorecki recording, which is really amazing too.”

“Then about a year ago, I was in Los Angeles with Bill T. Jones for A Rite, a piece he created with Anne Bogart for the 100th Anniversary of The Rite of Spring, and we were doing it at UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance.  I had applied [for the job] but hadn’t yet been called for an interview, so I sent an email to Terry Knowles [who was the LAMC President at the time] saying, ‘Hello, I’m applying to the position and I’m in town.  I’ve never seen you perform, can I come?’ ”

“So she invited me to a rehearsal at Walt Disney Concert Hall for the ‘Songs of Ascent’ program [featuring music by Whitacre, Brahms, Paik, and Kirchner].  I was blown away and it was only a rehearsal,” she says without a hint of irony or sarcasm.  “It was one of those moments – and it was just a rehearsal! – you know, those times when the world closes in around you and you’re centered and focused in on this artistic moment?  That happened.  It was amazing.”

Later she adds:  “I’m still learning about the choral world.   When I first started working with Yo-Yo Ma, I knew very little about classical music.  But I’m a hard worker and I’d like to think I’m a fast learner.”

Given all of that, she might seem like a curious choice to lead any choral organization, especially one so deeply rooted into Los Angeles as this one is.  After all, from its inception to the present, the LAMC’s executive leaders, conductors, and composers-in-residence have almost all tended to be Angelenos.  Many were – and in the case of current Composer-in-Residence Shawn Kirchner, still are – singers in the Master Chorale.

So why did the LAMC decide that this self-admitted choral newbie, an Oberlin College theater major and former lighting designer turned arts administrator, is the right person to lead the nation’s largest independent choral organization to the next level?

“It wasn’t like we said to ourselves ‘Hey everybody, let’s find someone for this position with virtually no choral experience whatsoever!’, ” says the Master Chorale’s Artistic Director, Grant Gershon, in an email response.  “What we knew going into the search process was that we wanted an arts leader with a very broad knowledge of what’s going on in the world of culture at large, and ideally one with a proven track record of success in steering a vibrant arts organization in a major urban center.”

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

Ms. Davidson postulates at least a couple more reasons why the LAMC Board chose her for this critical position:  “It’s one of the things that’s interesting is that I’m NOT an expert in choral music.  In fact, that’s one of the benefits I bring is that I can see things with an outsider’s point of view, and that can help us build the brand of the organization.”

“I’m not from New York but I’d been living there for 15 years and I’m pretty frank and blunt with my approach to business,” she reveals.  “During the interview process, I was very honest and open with them.  There are moments when I wondered how it would resonate with them when I said things like, “No one knows who you are outside the choral world.”  I said that because I believe that, and that’s a problem.”

She has similar opinions regarding Mr. Gershon’s relative anonymity outside the choral community.  “He’s a great artist.  More people need to know about Grant because he’s incredibly thoughtful, very knowledgeable, and yet extremely humble.  He’s not a huge ego, but he’s absolutely brilliant.  He reminds me a lot of Yo-Yo in that respect, and I’ve known him for 25 years.  It’s not like Yo-Yo or Grant are going to tell you exactly how to do something, but instead they’ll guide you there.  And every time I talk to Grant, I learn something new about choral music and classical music.”

“I mean this with respect [to everyone who has preceded me], it really is the best kept secret in arts in this country,” she emphasizes later.  “Why more people don’t know about the LA Master Chorale is perplexing because their artistic quality is so incredibly high.  So one of my goals is to increase the visibility of Grant and the Master Chorale nationally and internationally.”

When I ask if she has specific plans for how to make that happen, she gets a gleam in her eye and gives me a smile and an emphatic, “Yeah!”

Bill T. Jones - Kennedy Center Honors

Bill T. Jones

I press for details, but she politely demurs, not wanting to give away her strategy at this time and pointing out that it would be a conflict of interest for her to directly manage Mr. Gershon’s engagements away from the Master Chorale.

She is, however, willing to offer this potential precedent:  “After working with Yo-Yo for so many years, I went to work with Bill T. Jones, who is one of these absolute geniuses that nobody knew about.  And I always said that if I could figure out a way to get ‘Joe Sixpack’ in West Virginia, which is where I’m from, to know Bill T. Jones’s name, then I’ve succeeded.  So we worked on it for 10 years, and I’m certainly not taking all the credit and don’t want to sound egotistical . . . but after he earned a couple of Tony Awards [for Spring Awakening and Fela!], a National Medal of the Arts, and Kennedy Center Honors, I feel like we were able to say that we accomplished it.”

(Of course, there’s another precedent:  one only has to look to the Master Chorale’s roommate at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the LA Phil, and how their President, Deborah Borda, has influenced and perhaps even helped to steer Gustavo Dudamel’s career.  But I digress . . . )

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We talk in generalities about a few topics related to reaching new audiences, like the challenges and opportunities of attracting younger concertgoers, the optimum uses of video or other technology as part of both traditional and non-traditional choral performances, and the importance of taking smart, calculated risks and trying new things.

I mention that I heard about the LAMC’s recent recording session of works by David Lang:  the national anthems, which the Master Chorale co-commissioned and of which they gave the world premiere, and the Pulitzer Prize winning the little match girl passion.  I confess that I’m more excited that the Master Chorale made the point recording it in Hi-Res Audio than I am music about itself, and she laughs but also expresses satisfaction that somebody cares about the extra effort and expense.

John Adams, David Lang, Steve Reich, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars, Nico Muhly

(L to R) John Adams, David Lang, Steve Reich, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars, Nico Muhly

When we get to the topic of building new partnerships and enhancing the ones they already have with people like Morten Lauridsen, John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Peter Sellars, and others,  she gets a little extra animated.  After all, much of her career success as an arts executive has been establishing and nurturing innovative collaborations across organizations and even genres.  Ms. Davidson mentions all the composers she has met since coming to the Master Chorale, and beams with pride when mentioning the “Made in L.A.” concert from earlier in the season which featured music by Messrs. Lauridsen, Whitacre, and Kirchner, as well as others like Dale Trumbore, Moira Smiley, Jeff Beal, Matthew Brown, Paul Chihara, and Nilo Alcala.  She’s willing and eager to leverage the contacts she has with artists outside the Master Chorale’s existing circle of relationships and introduce them to each other, but only when those contacts serve Mr. Gershon’s artistic vision.

“I’m always cautious not to confuse my role with the Artistic Director’s role,” she emphasizes.  “But I also feel like Grant and I already have the kind of relationship where I can say, ‘Here’s someone I’ve worked with in the past, let’s consider them,’ and he’s been open to it.  I bring my former relationships as an offering, I guess, and if something sticks, great, but in the end it’s Grant’s decision.”

Later she says:  “Grant’s on contract until 2020, and I want to achieve what he wants to do artistically with the hope that he’ll stay.”

We’ll all have to wait to see if he does stay, but right now, the admiration and openness to work with artistic partners old and new seems genuinely mutual.  “Jean has collaborated closely with artists whom I revere and who speak of their work with her in the most glowing terms,” Mr. Gershon says. “I knew already by the end of my first meeting with Jean that she could help us to reach new audiences and deepen the impact of our music making.”

Over the course of the next season or two, Los Angeles will have the chance to see and hear how the relationship between the two leaders of the Master Chorale begins to manifest itself.  And if those still-to-be revealed plans of Ms. Davidson pan out, the rest of the USA – and maybe even the world – will have a chance to see and hear these outstanding singers too.

As both Ms. Davidson and Mr. Gershon told me separately, “This is a very exciting time for this organization!”

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The Los Angeles Master Chorale performs the Verdi Requiem at Walt Disney Concert Hall at 2pm today (Saturday, January 30) and 7pm tomorrow evening (Sunday January 31).

Grant Gershon conducts.  Soloists include Amber Wagner (soprano), Michelle DeYoung (mezzo-soprano), Issachah Savage (tenor), and Morris Robinson (bass).

Tickets are available HERE.

Click HERE to view streaming video of their complete performance of the Verdi Requiem at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Gustavo Dudamel (and featuring soloists Julianna Di Giacomo, Michelle DeYoung, Vittorio Grigolo, and Ildebrando d’Arcangelo).

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Photo credits:

  • Jean Davidson: via Twitter (Finland), photo by Tilly Blair,Gruber Photographers
  • Album Cover (LAMC/Gershon:  “A Good Understanding,” Nico Muhly):  courtesy of Decca
  • Grant Gershon:  photo by CK Dexter Haven
  • Bill T. Jones:  photo by Walter McBride / WM Photos
  • John Adams, David Lang, Steve Reich, Grant Gershon, Peter Sellars, Nico Muhly:  photo by Patrick Brown
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One thought on “A chat with Jean Davidson, new President & CEO of the Los Angeles Master Chorale

  1. Pingback: Top 7 things to know about Lagrime di San Pietro for the LA Master Chorale season opening concerts | All is Yar

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