John Currie, the new director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, waves goodby to an associate at the Music Center offices and jokes, while walking away, about how he intends to "electrify the Chorale associates."
His words have the ring of laughing confidence. He seems oblivious to the cloud under which he joined the Master Chorale as its new leader--of the political battles that were fought last year in ousting Roger Wagner, the ensemble's founder and musical mastermind for 22 years, and of the stir he's caused by replacing roughly 60% of the singers themselves.
Obviously, the new chief is not afraid of controversy.
Take the matter of changing Chorale personnel, for example. Rather than going about it gradually, Currie this summer made reshaping the Chorale his first action. Specifically, he replaced 78 of the 125 singers who previously constituted the ensemble--an ensemble, incidentally, that received glowing notices throughout its history. (Management disputes this figure, however, with the claim that 28 members did not show up for auditions, four moved away and five refused an offer to perform as unpaid singers.)
Why the changes?
"I wanted to put my stamp on the Chorale," says Currie, settling into a high-back leather chair at a downtown pub, "and to do that a certain revamping was necessary.
"I agreed to take the post on condition that I have absolute authority," he continues. "I am aware of the heartbreak suffered by those who are left out, but I see professional criteria as the only thing that matters. Personnel changes were made for strictly vocal reasons."
What those reasons were are known only to Currie, who refuses to discuss them publicly. He is particularly evasive about why he didn't like the Chorale's "old" sound, saying only, "As artistic arbiter I must live up to my obligations--do the job I was hired to do; provide the best product, according to what my ears tell me. At 52, I'm too secure to step timidly, but too wise to forget that my work is a privilege."
As for the sound he wants for the future, Currie, who will make his debut with the Master Chorale Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, takes a cagey route: "A musician does not describe his sound in words, he demonstrates it. The public must come to hear the Chorale to know the John Currie sound as it will develop over the next five years."
Currie, who has spent the last 17 years as director of the Scottish National Orchestra Chorus and every major choral organization in his native region, is nothing if not candid. His perception of the choral world--and of his place in it--is unflinchingly direct.
"At the risk of sounding overly grand," he says, sipping a brandy, "I expected to be approached by the Master Chorale. . . . When word spread that the post would be open. We are a rather small family, those of us with names in the business. And it wouldn't have been appropriate for the board here to overlook the most obvious candidates, people like myself and Robert Shaw."
When the Master Chorale chose Currie, it got a realist.
"I'm not a choral nut or an academic who just loves the whole repertory," he emphasizes. "I certainly wouldn't jump in a taxi to hear Mendelssohn's 'Elijah,' for instance. And I'm not a proselytizer by any means.
"Frankly, I understand why choral music is not great box office. Other than the three blockbusters--'Messiah,' the Verdi Requiem (which he offers as his calling card Saturday) and 'Carmina Burana,' there's little else to interest a mainstream audience. Only the great works attract me, and it's on the basis of these that choral music must be sold."
Currie's arrival on the Los Angeles music scene has been noisy. In replacing two-thirds of the Chorale, he has overtly demonstrated that he is in charge.
Dennis Moss, a non-singer and the Chorale's legal representative to the American Guild of Musical Artists, says what Currie has done may not not have been tactful, but it also was not illegal.
"The rights of the music director are explicit," Moss says. "Contractually, he is allowed to make his own choices based on the subjective musical standards he upholds. Besides, singers here, as well as elsewhere, have never pressed for more security. In Currie's case, there was also the need to judge voices for their usefulness as opera choruses (needed by the Music Center Opera)."
Indeed, Sheila Coyazo, who says she wasn't informed of the auditions and therefore is no longer a Chorale member, says "Currie is looking for heavy, operatic voices, not the pure women's sound Roger liked." Basso Paul Hinshaw, who retains the same paid position now that he enjoyed under Wagner, feels that the new director "has strengthened the group by changing it. Roger kept some people out of loyalty. He valued musicianship over voices. Currie reverses that order. He has engaging musical ideas, but his obsessive note-taking approach is the opposite of Roger's, which hinged on intense eye contact, verbal directions and shaping sound with his hands."