Roger Wagner at Still Conducts a Musical Life

Less than a year ago, Roger Wagner seemed to many to be at the end of his career. Now, though, he is busier than ever, rejoicing in strong academic associations, numerous concert engagements and tours, and a new recording contract.

For two decades, there was no question as to who was the master of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Wagner founded--and funded--the organization in 1964 and saw it established in residence at the Music Center, supported by the Performing Arts Council.

But in 1984, the Master Chorale board of directors began preparing plans for the eventual replacement of Wagner, citing his age and the need for an orderly transition. In September of that year, Wagner signed a new contract granting him limited appearances with the chorale in future seasons and a controversial degree of approval over his successor. The notoriously imperious conductor soon repented his acquiescence, and the ensuing season was marked by periodic public acrimony on the subject of his retirement.

At a press conference in November, 1985, Wagner quietly stood by while Scottish conductor John Currie was formally introduced as the new music director of the Master Chorale. Later, Wagner reported in a Times interview that the board “made certain financial concessions to me for agreeing to accept all this gracefully.”


Wagner was given one concert to conduct during Currie’s inaugural season, a program of opera choruses last January. At that performance, Wagner collapsed on stage just before intermission, stricken from the effects of a subdural hematoma above his brain.

Though the now 73-year-old conductor was not hospitalized long, his future as an active musical leader did not seem bright.

Since then, however, Wagner has led his own chorale on a national tour, has released the first recording under an exclusive contract with Delos International and has become comfortably ensconced on the faculty of Pepperdine University as Distinguished Professor of Choral Music.

He is also the president and founding director of the new Roger Wagner Choral Institute and Center for Choral Studies at Cal State Los Angeles. The Roger Wagner Chorale’s Christmas concerts Saturday in Westwood and Sunday in Santa Ana will benefit the institute and feature music from the new Delos CD ". . .to Catch a Falling Star.”


“I feel very happy, very fulfilled. I feel no bitterness or hatred for anyone,” the erstwhile tiger of the choral halls says. “If things go poorly now, I usually blame myself.”

But Wagner adds, “I’m a perfectionist, and perfectionists are usually miserable.”

Wagner will also conduct the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale in Handel ‘s “Messiah” Dec. 19 at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The following night he will lead a “Messiah” sing-along at St. Cyril of Jerusalem Church in Encino.

With all these activities, Wagner can afford magnanimity in retirement. He doesn’t miss the Master Chorale--or at least some aspects of its administration.


“To be perfectly honest with you,” he states expansively, “I am perfectly happy not to have to deal with the politics.”

Wagner concedes that he has indeed mellowed some. “I’m not as cruel to the sopranos, though I feel the same resentment of sopranos who shake (have a wide vibrato) beyond the limits of good taste.”

After that admission, Wagner becomes more insistent. “I have a concept of sound, and that sound has to be right. I have to have that wonderful limpid sound.”

The conductor sees his vocal job as eliciting the feu sacre, the sacred flame, within his singers. “The soul of the piece is what counts, and when a conductor cannot transmit it to his singers so that they can transmit it to the audience, it’s a sad day indeed.”


Wagner, who will be 74 in January, believes maturity is important. “I think I conduct better now than I’ve ever conducted because I can get a maximum of results from a minimum of effort.”

At the same time, however, he does refer to his efforts in the past tense. “I don’t think that the interest in choral music is as great (now) as it was in the days of the (Robert) Shaw/Wagner era,” a period he sees as encompassing the decades of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. The record companies, Wagner claims, are not behind choral music as they once were.

The Roger Wagner Chorale, however, will be heard on four recordings forthcoming from Delos over the next two years. In addition to the initial Christmas disc, the projects include Brahms’ “Liebeslieder,” an album of Americana and Durufle’s Requiem.

Of the latter work, the French-born and French-trained Wagner says, “Durufle was one of my closest friends. He loved the way I did his music, because my roots are in Gregorian (chant).”


Preserving the past for the future is an important part of the Wagner Institute at Cal State L.A., which is co-directed by William Belan and Robert Fowells, who are also producing a Festschrift honoring Wagner. Wagner’s own archives are destined for the institute.

The conductor himself also needs a new home. His custom-designed home in Woodland Hills, built in 1984, has been sold--at a loss, according to Wagner--and he is moving out to Westlake Village.

That puts him closer to Pepperdine University. When Wagner retired from UCLA in 1980, he thought he was done with teaching. When approached by Pepperdine, he told them, “I’ve taught for 50 years now, and you can’t afford me anyway.”

But they could, and Wagner is proud of how his program there has developed. He has always been noted for discovering and promoting young talent.


“I’ve encouraged the really young talents. . . I think that is one of my contributions,” Wagner muses. “I’m in exciting work, and I never get tired of it.”