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Many Voices, but One Man's Sound

Despite distractions in his final season, the L.A. Master Chorale's maestro is intently focused on shaping those signature tones.

December 17, 2000|ELAINE DUTKA | Elaine Dutka is a Times staff writer

Promptly at 7:30, the evening rehearsal gets underway, the second of three for the annual holiday concerts of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Music director Paul Salamunovich cedes a precious minute or two to commend the group for a performance of Mahler's Second Symphony with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic the weekend before.

Sung softly--in almost a hum--over a silent orchestra, the chorus' short, dramatic segment connotes resurrection and comes at the end of the piece.

"I got goose bumps on top of goose bumps," the conductor tells the singers packing a community room at Glendale's First Methodist Church.

Then it's down to business for the 120 singers--one of the nation's premiere professional choral groups and the Grammy-nominated in-house chorus of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. For the next 2 1/2 hours, the maestro hurls quips ("Guys, you're not passionate enough . . . have some margaritas"), taunts ("How dare you sing during a measure rest--what are you doing in this chorus?") and even the sheet music in an effort to achieve his "sound."

"In traffic that will get you killed--look up at intersections," he advises when voices collide during a run-through of Daniel Pinkham's "Christmas Cantata"--one of the pieces to be performed in a trio of Christmas programs beginning today.

Salamunovich has been with the group, in its various incarnations, since he was a teen. In 1946, he was a founding member of the Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus, which evolved into the professional Roger Wagner Chorale three years later. When the choir, renamed the Los Angeles Master Chorale, became a resident company of the Music Center in 1964, Salamunovich was appointed assistant conductor. After breaking away from the chorus, he returned as the third music director in its history, in 1991.

"I love the creativity of making 'it' happen," he says. "Things don't gel until dress rehearsal, and the miracle rarely takes place before show time."

Creating the miracle has been particularly challenging during the 2000-01 season. Dubbed "A Farewell to Paul Salamunovich," it has more concerts and--because of belt-tightening--fewer rehearsals. In July, the 73-year-old conductor will hand the reins to Grant Gershon, 33 years his junior and a former assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Opera.

And there are personal challenges as well. Diagnosed with lymphoma in July, Salamunovich is squeezing professional demands between chemotherapy treatments. And after having both hips rebuilt this summer, he has had to learn to walk again. Though he put music aside for a month or so, he was back on the podium in October. Fatigue is now a fact of life, he says, but he's operating at full tilt.

"When Paul returned from the hospital, the talk immediately turned from his health to the newest score he was studying," recalls Morten Lauridsen, composer-in-residence at the chorale for the last six years and the creator of a company hit, "Lux Aeterna." "Music is part and parcel of his being, which is part of what makes him great. The Master Chorale has never sounded better. He's the finest choral man around."

Jim Drollinger, a Master Chorale baritone, agrees. "In choral circles he's revered," he says. "It's the gospel according to Paul."


Salamunovich sits in his home office, a clutter of files, books, and photos of personalities including Lucille Ball (with whom he worked on a TV episode called "Lucy, the Choirmaster"), Stan Kenton (with whom he cut a jazz album in the 1950s) and Igor Stravinsky (for whose 75th birthday he prepared a concert). Also on the wall is a picture of Roger Wagner--a choral music legend and Salamunovich's mentor.

One of five boys reared by Croatian-born parents, Salamunovich always loved singing. His youthful soprano (which later developed into what he calls a lyric baritone with a strong falsetto) earned him a place in his Redondo Beach church choir.

"Choral singing was a means of self-expression for a quiet, introverted kid like me," he recalls. "Others protect you and help you do things you could never do alone."

By chance, Salamunovich attended a concert of a Wagner-led chorus in Redondo Beach, and his priest introduced him to the director. His family moved to Hollywood when he was 13, and he joined the local parish choir. He also started commuting downtown, where he sang with Wagner at St. Joseph's Church.

After graduating from Hollywood High in 1945, Salamunovich enlisted in the Navy. He spent a year in Pearl Harbor--replacing sailors sent home after World War II ended. Upon his return, he joined Wagner's Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus, where he kept company with the teenage Marilyn Horne and Marni Nixon. Wagner suggested that he enroll at Los Angeles City College on the GI Bill--though he had no thought of a music career and couldn't read a note. He studied harmony, counterpoint, chorus and sight singing, and left with an associate arts certificate.

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