Tuesday, September 10, 2013

A Conversation with Grant Gershon

By Douglas Neslund

Twelve seasons ago, your scribe sat down with the youthful Grant Gershon, then as now a musician who appeared much younger than his 40 years, to mine his dreams and corral his thoughts on assuming the Music Directorship of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and following in the footsteps of its iconic founding director Roger Wagner, and Wagner’s successors John Currie and Paul Salamunovich.

It’s safe to say that in the intervening dozen years, the 52-year old Maestro Gershon has surpassed even his own goals and dreams, rebuilt an audience, expanded the season, and carved out new musical territories for the LAMC and its audiences.

We met in an obscure coffee roasting house south of downtown Pasadena on one of the hotter, more sultry days of August.

In our far-ranging conversation on the eve of a High Sierra family vacation, he spoke freely of his stewardship of the organization, of the current state of affairs of the Master Chorale, and where he would like it to go as the Master Chorale enters its 50th Anniversary year.

Maestro Gershon’s musical life with the Los Angeles Master Chorale included singing in a performance of Fauré’s Requiem in Roger Wagner’s initial Master Chorale, and accompanying John Currie’s performances on harpsichord of Bach’s B-Minor Mass and St. Matthew Passion.

While the noisy interior of our surroundings drowned out an occasional answer or comment, LA Opus deeply appreciates Maestro Gershon’s taking the time to answer our questions, which follow:

LA Opus (LAO): It’s been very interesting listening to the Master Chorale over the span of time in hearing the differences and changes in Baroque performance practice in particular, from a Romantic-era patina to a cleaner, more translucent and nuánced style.

Grant Gershon (GG): It’s a move in the right direction, in my opinion.

LAO: On a scale of one to ten, ten being where the Master Chorale is now, when you first heard the Master Chorale, what would you have rated it?

GG: It’s a little hard to answer, but with the ears and sensibility that I had at the time, it was a ten. The very first time I heard the Chorale was as an audience member for a performance of Mahler’s Second Symphony with Zubin Mehta. I always felt like this was the world standard, this was the best work I had ever heard. I can’t necessarily say with the ears, sensibilities and experience that I have now how I would rate it, but certainly at the time it was the case.

LAO: Would that hold true in the Currie years as well?

GG: That was a difficult time for the Chorale, clearly, both in retrospect and I think at the time as well, frankly I didn’t hear the Chorale a lot except for the performances I was in.

LAO: And then Paul Salamunovich came along and things shifted back in the direction of Roger Wagner’s approach.

GG: Again, I wasn’t privy to the decision-making process of how the directors were selected during that period, but the sense was that there was a feeling that the Chorale needed to protect its roots and find what people still referred to as ‘that signature sound’. And Paul was clearly the person to return the group to that.

LAO: As I recall, I heard that John Currie basically cleared out most of Roger’s singers.

GG: I heard that as well, and at the time there was something of a blood bath. He wanted a different sound and in so doing wanted to slay the dragon, so to speak.

I’ve looked around at other organizations going through growing pains, and it’s always a difficult time when you have a founding music director that moves on, and especially what we can imagine of Roger’s personality that was larger than life. In fairness to John, and almost anybody coming into that circumstance, it’s a tough road to hoe.

LAO: [Currie’s] personality was the mirror opposite of Roger’s. Roger always said he was going to write an autobiography and call it “Tour de Farce.”

When you auditioned for the job, were there other candidates of whom you were aware?

GG: Yes, they cast the net pretty wide, and the search went on frankly for the better part of a year, as I recall. I know that I had multiple interviews followed by a rehearsal audition with the group. My understanding is that there were four finalists, each of whom were invited to work with the group for 45 minutes in a variety of different repertoire and styles. I know that the singers had a strong input and their opinions were solicited as well.

LAO: Twelve years have past, twelve glorious years. In the coming season, how do you pick from those children which to bring back in retrospect for the new season?

GG: That’s a hard question. In this season, there was to be an opening concert where we wanted to include signature a cappella pieces from the four music directors, and then over the course of the season as well, a portion of retrospectives of pieces from my time with the Chorale as well as new pieces we have commissioned, and other new projects that are coming up. So it’s true that the choosing of what was representative – there were a few no-brainers – I knew from the beginning that we would have to do a B-Minor Mass, because it is one of the defining mountain-top pieces and it was the first piece that the Chorale performed under Roger as the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

LAO: And that will be performed in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion?

GG: Actually, it will be the Walt Disney Concert Hall. Last week I was in the plaza of the Music Center and saw the poster for the new season, and it shows the B-Minor Mass will be performed in the Chandler Pavilion as though connecting the past and present, but no, there will be two performances in Disney Hall.

LAO: We also read somewhere that the numbers of singers will be replicated as well as the old style …

GG: Well, not the old style actually, at least my intention was to honor what I considered to be the mid-century tradition of Bach performance by doing the piece with the full Chorale and with modern instruments. Obviously, we’ve been using Musica Angelica for the past few years for the Baroque, but what I am excited about was approaching it through the prism of what we’ve learned over the past two decades about performance practice.

LAO: So we won’t be subjected to largo tempi in every movement?

GG: No, I don’t think I could bring myself to replicate that aspect! I remember playing a piano rehearsal for a performance of the B-Minor Mass – I think it was for the Carmel Bach Festival – where the opening fugue was in eight to a bar and thinking, OK, it’ll take half an hour just to get to the end of the first movement.

In lengthier works, there is always a bit of anxiety about getting through a three-hour work in a two and one-half hour rehearsal.

LAO: Speaking of bringing back works from the past twelve years, I hope that you would consider the Tan Dun Water Passion.

GG: You know, that’s funny. Of all of the new pieces that we’ve performed during my time, we still hear the most from audience members about the Water Passion. All I can say is, stay tuned!

LAO: I cannot remember her name, but there was a woman from Cuba who lives in New York, who …

GG: Oh! Tania León!

LAO: Her music was exceptionally kaleidoscopic in texture.

GG: Yes, that’s another piece I’d like to bring back. She is really gifted.

LAO: Maybe a tough question to answer: were any of the new compositions a disappointment?

GG: Sure. Without naming names, it’s the risk that you take particularly with commissions. You select the composer in whom you have the most faith, to write something beautiful and lasting. But I tend philosophically to give composers pretty free rein, really, to pursue and follow their own imagination. And I feel over all, we’ve been very fortunate. But sometimes the piece doesn’t really pan out the way you’d hoped. 

I feel incredibly fortunate that we have and we’ve developed an audience that is really game for adventure, and even if there is music on the program that is unfamiliar, they’ll still come and give it an open hearing.

LAO: I’ve always considered Britten’s War Requiem to be the finest composition of the 20th century with Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius giving it close competition. One of the Chorale members wrote recently that the piece was getting a little long in the tooth for him.

GG: Well, the Master Chorale has sung it 18 times!

LAO: Mixing the old repertoire with the new is a good way to prepare a meal with different flavors for the audience.

GG: I agree absolutely. Not only in terms of developing the audience but also for all of us on stage. I think it’s important. I can’t imagine narrowing or focusing on one era or one genre or style.

LAO: What you have done on occasion is to focus on one culture or a city. The biggest surprise to me was the Korean event, which was totally different from what I was expecting to hear!

GG: Good! Good!

LAO: You’ve done London, you’ve done France …

GG: Yes, that was more of a travelogue.

LAO: Are you going to pick that concept up and do, say, Budapest?

GG: Yes, I like that model to give the program some focus, and also it allows us to explore some music that may otherwise be difficult to find the right place in a program. That was true of the Korean program. The other aspect of that particular concert that was important for us, it provided us with a wonderful opportunity to reach out to the Korean community, which in terms of classical music is very, very active. It’s a natural bridge for us to create, and since we have some very gifted singers in the Chorale and the tradition of gifted Korean singers in the Chorale.

This all points up how much Los Angeles is made up of close-knit communities. I think that frankly, choral music, because it is in all these cultures that have a tradition of groups singing. We have this very fertile ground for us to build bridges that has to be a part of our mission.

LAO: How do you feel about American culture? Obviously, that would include jazz, Spirituals and other bedrock American cultures, cowboy music …

GG: … which will be represented in the Roger Wagner portion …

LAO: Alice Parker arrangements?

GG: Exactly!

LAO: And of course you can unleash Shawn Kirchner, who is a wonderful arranger and composer.

GG: Sure, absolutely. I can’t agree more.

When you talk about American music, I do very much enjoy exploring the roots music, as you mentioned, Spirituals, the shape note tradition we’ve had a lot of fun with, and the Appalachian tradition for which Shawn has such a great feel. And the main thing about those traditions is that we treat the music with integrity and respect.

LAO: Out of the past twelve years, what piece lies closest to your heart?

GG: Boy … great question. It’s like choosing your favorite child. It’s such a wide-ranging collection of pieces and concerts that come to mind.

LAO: Let me sharpen the question. I know what it is to feel ecstasy when you’re conducting. What piece particularly sends you into that realm?

GG: I would have to say the Brahms Requiem, the Verdi Requiem, the Tan Dun Water Passion … you know, when you have those moments, there’s no way to put it other than out of body, out of all natural sensibility experiences. I have to say I’ve had a relatively fair number of these, but for me, it happens the most often in these major works where the time scale is such that you’re living in the moment over such a sustained period of time in the major works that I mentioned that there comes a point where you shed your own sense of self in a way, and especially happens when you have an ensemble that you can trust so deeply and that everybody will have that shared experience.

When I was in high school, there was a collection of pieces over the course of those four years that I had score to that I would carry around from class to class and on breaks I’d go to the music room and find a piano and play through, and the Brahms Requiem specifically,             often times at night after I finished my homework I would put on my recording of the Erich Leinsdorf and I wore out the groove on that. It’s one of those pieces that I’ve lived with for so many years at this point and I’ve had the opportunity to perform it previously with the Chorale, so it’s a piece that has such long-term connection and where you have first-hand experience with it so you’re not having to think about this technical aspect of it and that creates the perfect situation for such an experience.

LAO: What piece performed over the years has elicited the greatest “shout back” from the audience?

GG: I have to say that the (Duke) Ellington Sacred Concert. I will really never forget the first time we performed those in the first season at Disney Hall, and the combination for all of us covering this repertoire that maybe we knew by name but I certainly didn’t know any of that music previously, so in discovering the pure jubilation of that music, being in the Hall it was the first time that I truly appreciated how informal Disney Hall could feel compared with the proscenium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. That was the first time that I truly felt that the performers and audience all could truly be completely interconnected, and so when we got that audience “shout out” not only at the end of the concert, but after every movement – it was a truly incredible experience. 

 LAO: Let’s talk about the coming season. It’s special for the Chorale, being the 50th season, and your 13th as music director. How long has this special year been in the planning stages?

GG: I would say a good three years. Our event horizon for season planning has grown over the course of these 12 years. For instance, here we are in August, and we’ve got the 2014-2015 season pretty much set, maybe with a little wiggle room, but it’s pretty much there. That’s been set for 2-3 months. So we tend to be about a year and a half out where things really get put into place.

It was a longer horizon for this coming season, because obviously with it’s being the 50th season of the group there were a lot of different aspects of the music that we wanted to make sure to highlight and be thinking about in advance. I think that any big anniversary like this presents an ensemble with an opportunity to define and redefine themselves for the public and for the audience. So we were very aware, going into this season, of how this could be both a retrospective and a way to point forward to the future.

LAO: When you prepare a piece requiring soloists to be drawn from the Chorale, what is that process like?

GG: Well, of course every year we have audition, and basically all of the Chorale members have to audition at least every other year and many of them choose to sing for me each year and particularly the ones that are interested in solo work. I’ll hear them on a fairly regular basis, and I have to say that I feel like it’s one of the shifts that happened over the course of my time with the Chorale, frankly is that the level of solo vocalism overall through the group has risen. There have always been some tremendous soloists all the way back to the prehistory of the Chorale – Marilyn Horne famously and Marni Nixon with Roger – so I don’t want to be dismissive of that long tradition, but I do think now that the number of singers that we can feature in solos and give solo opportunities to has increased over these years. I love that! It creates a virtuous circle that we are able to provide singers with an opportunity to rise to the occasion, which lifts the whole group, and it also is a great advertisement for potential singers coming in that if you join the Master Chorale, it’s not just doing ensemble singing, but you will have opportunities to solo sing with them or solos with the Philharmonic, for that matter.

LAO: When you have a solo opportunity, is there a system, if any, when choosing a soloist?

GG: At this point, there are 82 singers who are under an AGMA (union) contract, and then there are anywhere from 35 to 45 singers that are still members of the Chorale but technically they’re referred to as “supplemental” and they’re paid a stipend rather than the full union contractual fee. So when I’m choosing smaller ensembles or soloists, I’m drawing from that roster of 82 singers. But I have to say, more and more we use the supplemental singers like the farm team, and if you look at the singers who become full roster members, most of them were supplemental singers that sang with the group for a period of time. For me, it’s a win-win situation. I get to bring in a new singer, see how they function overall in the group, because you only tell so much from an audition. And then when we have openings in the roster, I’m able to offer a position to somebody who’s become a member of the ensemble and I know them, the other singers know them. Not only is it good for the group in the short term, but as a long term strategy for keeping the ethos of the group strong, it works out very, very well.

LAO: In any group, there are bound to be ego problems when choosing soloists from time to time. Do you have to deal with that issue?

GG: I do think that the group as a whole, the singers are tremendously supportive. They’re colleagues, teammates. It takes a tremendous amount of trust to build an ensemble like that. I think that for members of the Chorale, they take particular pleasure in having soloists coming from the group rather than hiring from outside.

LAO: Roger Wagner used to say you build a choir from the bottom up, starting with the basses. You pretty much keep the numbers in each section equal.

GG: Yes, when we’ve done Rachmaninoff, for instance, we brought in extra basses. Oftentimes what happens is we’ll put out a full call, like for the Rachmaninoff, and of the 115 singers, 105 are available. So that opens up ten positions where I can go out and look to see who can sing that low B-flat (in the All-Night Vigil’s Ave Maria).

LAO: Are you enjoying working with Los Angeles Opera? You even get to conduct once in awhile!

GG: I love working in opera. I love having the yin-yang experience of being in a concert world where everything is very controlled, and particularly as conductor, you very much have complete control of what happens, and then in opera, where anything can happen, and will … I know James Conlon talks about this a lot, having one foot in both worlds … there’s nothing like that excitement and the spontaneity of opera performance, and there are so many more variables than in a concert performance, and in opera, everything is bigger than life.

I’ve enjoyed the fact that my own conducting assignments have been in pieces like La Traviata and Butterfly, and now Carmen coming up, the old war horses.

LAO: And you conduct for the Philharmonic, too.

GG:  Yes, with the Philip Glass. For me, right now being in LA, I can’t imagine a better situation artistically or personally. I do feel, having grown up in LA, it’s a very good time now, and we should savor it. Nothing can be taken for granted. In the last few years, everything has come together for the city.

You know, I really credit Esa-Pekka Salonen above all for creating the shift that happened. He came to the Philharmonic at a difficult time similar to the Curry years at the Master Chorale, and there was a period of drift for two or three seasons after Previn before Esa-Pekka could assume the mantle, and it was a really difficult time. The morale of the orchestra was not good, and the sense of identity in LA was not good overall. Then Esa-Pekka came, and it wasn’t easy for him those first two years, but not only did he transform the orchestra but more importantly, he transformed the greater LA audience, and he made it possible to do the kind of programming that we do with LA Opera to come into its own. And then Walt Disney Concert Hall opened and we felt the unbridled jealousy from New York, which I love!

LAO: I note that the Master Chorale will be performing a work by Esa-Pekka Salonen in the June 2014 concert. Tell us about that.

GG: The singers came together on their own and said to management, we want to underwrite a commission of a major composer to write something for the Chorale for the 50th anniversary, and as they were talking, Esa-Pekka’s name kept coming up. We approach him, and he was thrilled to accept.

LAO: Have you ever had a commission arrive in the mail, ink still wet, barely in time for the performance?

GG: I’m trying to think of a commission that didn’t arrive at the last moment! It’s an occupational hazard.

LAO: So you just hope that it arrives prior to the Monday night rehearsal and a bit of time to look the score over.

GG: The most difficult thing structurally concerning commissioning a brand new piece is budgeting rehearsal time and you simply have to gather as much information as possible in order to make an educated guess about how much time it would take. I also feel fortunate that I’m a pretty quick study and of course, the group is very quick as well.

LAO: I didn’t like Nico Muhly’s Bright Mass the first time I heard it, but did the second time around.

GG: I think we did it a lot better the second time! I’m not ashamed to say it. Sometimes the first performance is a bit ‘seat of the pants’ or not even that, but whether it’s a new piece or not, after the performance you learn what’s really inside the piece. I think Bright Mass is a pretty good example of that, where I felt and I knew much more about the piece after that first performance and so, it’s always a luxury to come back and revisit, take what you’ve learned and then apply it.

Speaking of the upcoming season, I am very happy with the number of concerts this year that we’re able to repeat at Disney Hall. Anytime you have an opportunity to do a program more than once, it always strengthens and deepens, not only that specific program, but the overall sense of cohesion and ensemble long term that benefits from those repeat performances. There’s just no substitute for it.

LAO: Have you noticed a “sizzle” to the Walt Disney Concert Hall?

GG: I’ve experienced it. I’ve also heard that with the Philharmonic. Also, it would be nice to have maybe an extra second of reverb in the Hall when we do Renaissance or Arvo Pärt or music written for a cathedral. And we’ve refined our recording techniques to catch the sonic bloom of the Hall.

LAO: We thank you for taking precious time to answer a few questions and wish you and the Master Chorale a joyous and remarkable Season No. 50! Let the rehearsals begin!

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