Gregory Maldonado is an American. Big deal, there are about 225 million of those. But in the circumscribed world of period musical performance, the violinist-director of the Los Angeles Baroque Orchestra is among very few occupying leadership positions in a field dominated even in this country by Britons.
"They do charm people here with that accent," the bearded, 31-year-old Merced native says.
Maldonado's background is in as striking a contrast to that of his colleagues as is Fresno State, his alma mater, to Oxford. But there is no escaping the fact that the period performance movement had at first to be centered in Europe. After all, it is predicated on (chiefly) 18th-Century stylistic practices and instruments of the time, such as violins strung with gently resonating gut rather than today's tough-toned steel.
"The manuscripts were there," Maldonado says, "of Bach, Handel and the rest. And so were the instruments themselves."
He refers obliquely to such highly visible British leaders of United States ensembles as Christopher Hogwood (the Handel & Haydn Society of Boston), Nicholas McGegan (the West Coast-based Philharmonia Baroque) and Trevor Pinnock (the new, otherwise all-American Classical Band of New York).
Obviously, Maldonado's eyes are fixed on music of the past, which he performs as director--leading from the principal violin position, rather than as a baton-wielding conductor--of his 4-year-old orchestra.
But he is currently contending with the immediate future: concert presentations by his ensemble and a cast including soprano Mary Rawcliffe and countertenor Lawrence Lipnick. They will perform Handel's rarely heard opera "Il pastor fido" (The Faithful Shepherd) tonight at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Pasadena, Saturday night at Our Saviour's Lutheran in Long Beach, and Sunday afternoon at Pasadena Presbyterian Church.
Maldonado's career is taking off in proportion to the zooming popularity of the period movement. The L.A. Baroque Orchestra, which he founded in 1985, had for its initial season a a budget of $11,000. Because the orchestra is in such demand, next season's budget will be about $190,000--with some help from a major grant from the Mellon Foundation and a residency at UCLA.
Maldonado was bitten by the period bug in 1982, when after having left the Central Valley--"the only culture Merced had was agriculture"--and continuing studies at UCLA, he attended a concert by San Francisco's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, with which he later performed: "That first string chord changed my life. You could hear the notes . They weren't obscured by all that vibrato."
He has now reached a point where he makes his living playing nothing but old music on old instruments. No studio gigs, even, the salvation of so many serious Los Angeles-based musicians. And he is passing on his expertise as a Baroque fiddler to students at UCLA and USC.
"I've gotten to the point where I hardly ever pick up a modern fiddle anymore. And I don't really want to hear other people playing them, playing the same old Tchaikovsky and Brahms."
Returning to the subject of "Il pastor fido," Maldonado muses: "Something I've been thinking about in relation to Handel's operas and what they require is that more and more of today's singers are learning to sing simply, emphasizing clarity and dramatic meaning.
"The best ones remind me of the great pop singers, like Tony Bennett and Judy Garland, who vary sound and project emotions according to the needs of a specific song. All opera singers should be listening to them."
A very American observation, indeed.