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The Panache is Back : Paul Salamunovich has restored the L.A. Master Chorale’s to its former glory; now, there’s the audience problem.

<i> Timothy Mangan is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

Paul Salamunovich remem bers, way back when, better times. Born in Los Angeles, the 67-year-old music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale has been an integral part of a rich period of music history in the city.

Names, places and performances pop up in his conversation in tones of disbelief--was I really a part of that? Performing in Monday Evening Concerts with Stravinsky; at the Hollywood Bowl in Mozart’s Requiem with Bruno Walter; for Roger Wagner, Alfred Wallenstein, Eduard van Beinum. Recording with Stan Kenton on Capitol Records, with Robert Kraft in the complete works of Webern. Preparing choruses for the likes of Solti, Ormandy, Steinberg and Mehta. More than 80 appearances, as singer and choral conductor, on movie soundtracks; recording “It’s a Small World” for Disney; pop singing on offbeat record labels. “The old days,” he calls them.

But Salamunovich’s feet are firmly on the ground this afternoon during an interview in his North Hollywood home. These recollections may well be there to keep his spirits up, because he has practical concerns on his mind. He looks tired. His schedule sounds hectic. The phone keeps ringing. He talks in a bleary, husky, near-whisper of dwindling audiences and finances for the Master Chorale, the lack of music education in our schools, dealing with the musicians’ union and diminishing rehearsal time.

Salamunovich is not complaining, exactly, but obstacles are obstacles, and anything that gets in the way of his passion for choral music and his mission of bringing it to listeners, is just, well, a pain in the neck.

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Things could be worse, though. Since taking over the leadership of the Master Chorale in 1991--"like the prodigal son come back” is what he called it at the time--after what many consider the less-than-stellar regime of John Currie from 1986-91, Salamunovich has been praised not only for his programming and elegant musicianship, but for restoring the choir to what it was under Roger Wagner, the group’s founder and its music director until 1986.

The return to the old sound isn’t exactly a surprise. Salamunovich grew up under Wagner’s wing, first as a singer at 13, then, after service in World War II, in Wagner’s Concert Youth Chorus in 1946.

The chorus became the Roger Wagner Chorale in 1949 and then the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1964, when it became established as the resident chorus of the Music Center. Salamunovich was Wagner’s assistant conductor and right-hand man from 1953-77--he characterizes the relationship as one of father and son.

After leaving the Chorale, Salamunovich continued his many choral activities here in town, including music directorship (from 1949 to the present) of the St. Charles Borromeo Church Choir, which performed for the Pope at the Vatican in 1988 in what Salamunovich calls “the greatest moment of my life”; and his 27-year faculty position at Loyola Marymount University, relinquished upon his Master Chorale appointment in 1991. Also a hyper-active clinician, he has participated in an estimated 696 choral festivals and clinics worldwide.

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But when Wagner was messily forced into retirement in 1986 and Salamunovich was one of several leading candidates passed over in favor of the man some considered the more glamorous foreign candidate (Currie), Salamunovich’s discontent (and he was not alone) spilled over in a letter to The Times. Now that he’s in the top place, however, those feelings appear to have passed. He will admit only that Currie’s style “was contrary to the sounds I was used to,” but quickly adds, “I like John Currie. I visited him in Scotland this past August . . . he’s a very erudite, good musician.”

Nevertheless, changes have been made. “When I took over the Chorale,” Salamunovich says, “the first thing Wagner told me was, ‘Paul, get rid of half the sopranos and hire basses'--to get back to the old sound.”

He replaced Currie’s bright, operatic sound with a kinder and gentler sonority, mellow and blended “with the energy--or, should I say, foundation of the sound--coming from the lower voices.”

Not that the choir didn’t put up a fight. Inheriting a group mostly auditioned by Currie, Salamunovich had to do some coaxing. “I got the men to understand immediately in the first few rehearsals three years ago, and the altos were close to getting it immediately, but I had to fight the sopranos . . . I’ve got to admit to you that a lot of sopranos . . . don’t like restraining their voices. They resent it. But they don’t resent the beautiful product that comes from it.”

There’s no sense of tension during an evening Master Chorale rehearsal--an efficient, tightly wound affair. No time to waste, lots of music to cover. Less than 30 seconds elapse between the end of one piece and the beginning of another, Salamunovich hurrying the music off his stand in the same motion as the cutoff and quickly grabbing the next piece on the pile.

Spoken directions are minimal, the conductor preferring to run through entire pieces, perhaps stopping for brief suggestions or to sing a phrase the way he wants it. He and the Chorale have developed their own argot apparently, and no one seems puzzled by such enigmatic commands as “hot potato,” “no diphthong,” “quicksand,” and “three blind mice.”

Salamunovich’s less mysterious advice is colorful too. On how to end one passage: “Like someone kicked you in the gut.” On how not to sing a long note: “In a short while there will be decay, and it will stink.” He asks his sopranos for “a warm-mother sound please, don’t wake the kid up.” The choir makes rich, cozy sounds for this Christmas program, perfectly tuned, and turns on an extra shimmer in Morten Lauridsen’s new “O magnum mysterium,” with the ecstatic composer listening. A single, loud clap from Salamunovich serves to stop the Chorale, mid-phrase. The stopwatch he wears around his neck is emblematic of his hurry--he clicks it on to time the union regulation break.

In its early years, Salamunovich said, “the Chorale was not as unionized . . . We didn’t have the time element to worry about, we just rehearsed and we could rehearse for two or three months, maybe rehearse two different programs at one time. Now, when I came back, it has come to where the union has set control of the group and said you must have no more than 2 1/2 hours per rehearsal, and you will pay them, and they’ll have a 20-minute break, and you have to only work on one program. You cannot look ahead to the next concert if you have an easy program this time, so you have to judiciously figure out how many rehearsals you can do a concert in. And each rehearsal costs almost $4,000.”

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Given such restrictions, the group has only four rehearsals for the Christmas program and just one to prepare Mozart’s cantata “Davidde Penitente” for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert. “And I want it to be virtuoso,” he says, “because I remember what the Chorale was when I sang and how it should be.”

If Salamunovich talks a lot about artistic hurdles, he also realizes that he’s lucky the Chorale even exists. Last season, when the Music Center Unified Fund reduced its contributions to the Chorale (and other Music Center performing groups because of a fund-raising shortfall), Salamunovich says they “had to save $40,000 immediately, or go under.” The orchestra was cut from the next concert, the Chorale forced to perform with piano accompaniment only.

Audiences have been dwindling after his first successful season, but he’s not sure why--he points to the 1992 riots, the flagging economy and even poor musical education in schools. In an effort to attract larger audiences, Salamunovich has attempted some culturally diverse programs, such as the “Reflections of Freedom” concert two seasons ago featuring music from Eastern Europe, and last month’s “Canciones Para Los Angeles” featuring Latin American music, but both drew fewer than expected. “We’re trying to attract a new breed of people,” he says, just who they are “is what we’re trying to find out.”

But deep down, Salamunovich believes that it will be the power of the art that wins over new audiences: “In my early years,” he says, “I would never in my lifetime think of going to the ballet. And we were engaged many years ago--35, 40 years ago in the Roger Wagner Chorale--to appear with the Sadler’s Wells Ballet in ‘Daphnis and Chloe.’ We were in the orchestra pit . . . I was in the last row and had one foot onstage. What a thrill for me the first time to be that close singing and watching Dame Margot Fonteyn. It was like, where’s this been all my life? So, if you can get them to go to the Chorale--it could be almost any program--if they could feel the fervor and truthfulness of the performer, the artistic truthfulness, their involvement, that energy will come to them."* * Paul Salamunovich conducts the Los Angeles Master Chorale in Christmas music by Britten, Pinkham, Susa and others at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Tonight at 8. $7-$45. (213) 365-3500.


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