Many Voices, but One Man's Sound

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."

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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.

Wagner's next suggestion: the 21-year-old Salamunovich replace him as music director of North Hollywood's St. Charles Borromeo Church choir in 1949. Despite a lack of conducting experience. Salamunovich accepted the job, which he holds to this day. Shortly thereafter, he married his high school sweetheart, Dottie Hilton, with whom he's reared four sons and a daughter.

By combining church work with education and singing gigs, Salamunovich kept himself afloat financially. Those were the glory days of chorale music, he says--in contrast to the present. Wagner's chorus sang on the 1948 soundtrack of Ingrid Bergman's "Joan of Arc" and weekly on TV's "I Married Joan" ("What a girl, what a whirl . . ."). Four members of the chorale formed the Modern Men quartet, recording "Kenton With Voices" for Capitol Records. Salamunovich also freelanced for movie studios, taught at Mount St. Mary's College and performed in the prestigious Monday Evening Concert series.

He also became Wagner's right hand at the chorale--preparing the group for performances with the Philharmonic and its own concerts when the maestro was on tour. Working for years in Wagner's shadow, Salamunovich was regarded as his heir apparent. When Salamunovich's 23-year-old daughter died in 1977, however, he was too shattered to continue. Bailing out of the Master Chorale, he focused on church work, festivals and teaching--this time at Loyola Marymount, where he served on the faculty for 27 years.

When Wagner retired in 1986, however, Salamunovich threw his hat in the ring to replace him. In the end, he lost out to Scotsman John Currie--a relief, in retrospect.

"I was frightened, wondering if I was capable of preparing the chorus for the world's greatest conductors," he concedes. "Having worked with legends such as Bruno Walter and Eugene Ormandy [when they conducted the Philharmonic] didn't build up my sense of self--it left me in a state of awe."

By all accounts, however, Currie was a mismatch. "Performing suffered, people canceled subscriptions," recalls Aleta Braxton, a mezzo-soprano with the L.A. Opera who joined the Master Chorale in 1984. "Several singers quit the chorus--it wasn't a fun time."

After Currie's contract expired in 1991, Salamunovich again auditioned for the post. This time, he got the nod--and Wagner was elated.

"The sound is back," he said in a loud whisper at the opening concert of the season.

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The Master Chorale's signature sound has been variously described in reviews as "warm," "resonant," "ardently emotional, yet not over-the-top." It's an outgrowth of Salamunovich's perfectionism and what Wagner called "the pyramid."

"The foundation is built on the male voices," Salamunovich explains. "I don't allow the sopranos to override them. I take the growl out of the basses and the ping out of the tenors. It's a kinder, gentler tone that says 'I love you.' "

Though most critics have embraced his approach, a few quibble with the product. A little bombast is good for the throat, they argue--and more interesting for the crowd.

"I'd like Paul to live a little more dangerously," says Mallory Walker, a former Metropolitan Opera singer who sang with the Master Chorale until last year. "While the men's chorus is the best I've heard, the tonal color of the women can be shallow."

The smooth line of Gregorian chant is the goal, Salamunovich says. So is "looseness": releasing the muscles as if "throwing up." Articulation and audience comprehension too are ongoing themes. Not just diction but the quality of sound should convey meaning, the conductor maintains.

Under Salamunovich's aegis, the Master Chorale has recorded three CDs--most recently, Dominic Argento's "Te Deum," to be released in the spring. He also conducted the group in 22 film scores, including "Snow Falling on Cedars," "Independence Day" and "Twister."

"Lux Aeterna," the most popular Master Chorale recording, has sold more than 45,000 copies (10,000 makes for a classical music hit) and was nominated for a 1998 Grammy--the group's first. Still selling consistently in its third year, it's one of the most popular premiums in the KUSC-FM fund-raising drive.

"Lux Aeterna" grew out of a relationship with composer Lauridsen that began in 1994. That year, Master Chorale's board president, Marshall Rutter, commissioned the USC professor to create a Christmas gift for his wife, Terry Knowles--who went on to become executive director of the chorale. What emerged was "O Magnum Mysterium," one of the selections on tonight's holiday program that is becoming a choral standard.

The success of the piece led the board to name Lauridsen its composer-in-residence. Three years later, he followed it up with two voluntary submissions: "Lux Aeterna" and a setting of "Ave Maria" for Salamunovich's 70th birthday.

"There's not a note I've written over these years in which I didn't have Paul and the unique sound he achieves with the Master Chorale in mind," says the composer, whose residency with the chorale, like Salamunovich's tenure, ends in July. "The way phrases are put together and melody is created--I always write for them."

In 1995, Salamunovich was honored by the Music Center with a Distinguished Artist Award. But his real claim to fame, he says, is having his name on Lauridsen's sheet music (two of the works are dedicated to him) and serving as conductor on Lauridsen CDs. No matter that "O Magnum Mysterium" was commissioned by the board--and that his affection for new music is limited.

"I never commission because I'd be stuck with doing the piece," Salamunovich says, flashing a gap-toothed smile. "And I don't do as much contemporary music as I should. After singing the complete works of Anton Webern early in my career, I never wanted to hear them again."

His successor, Gershon, has a kinder assessment of Salamunovich's achievements. "Paul returned the group to its roots and restored its sense of identity," he says. "He also gave the choir forward spin--quite a balancing act. His repertoire is eclectic, spanning well over 300 years. And his relationship with Lauridsen? A role model for me."

Though other contenders had more choral experience, the singers say, Gershon was Salamunovich's clear favorite. He applauds the younger man's grounding in new music and welcomes the addition of new blood. Because music education has been phased out of schools, the conductor observes, the audience is older--and dwindling.

"Only 1,000 people turned out for the Master Chorale's opening concert in the [3,197-seat] Dorothy Chandler Pavilion," Salamunovich says. "And our Christmas concerts, the year's biggest draw, haven't packed the house for years. People don't want to listen--they're more interested in 'show.' That's why the opera is the darling of the performing arts center--and the Master Chorale its perpetual stepchild."

He and the board hope Gershon will become a draw like L.A. Opera artistic director Placido Domingo and Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

"You know that banner of Esa-Pekka in a black T-shirt, arms up in the [Olympic gymnast] dismount position?" asks the Master Chorale's Knowles. "I'd love to see one with Grant, to put a youthful face on this operation. In Grant and Paul, we've been blessed with two distinguished artists. One is at mid-career and the other, having had a glorious ride, is on the other side of the mountain."

That side of the mountain won't be devoid of action, however. Guest conducting and choral workshops will fill his days, along with a Carnegie Hall performance in May of "Lux Aeterna," a month after the Master Chorale season ends. There will also be his Borromeo church work--playing at services Saturday evening and Sunday morning and directing a choir that has performed for Pope John Paul II three times.

"Paul has no double standard," says the Master Chorale's Drollinger, who also sings in the church choir. "He seems to derive as much satisfaction out of a "Hallelujah" at a Sunday Mass as out of a great work like Missa Solemnis at the Music Center. He also loves working with high school kids all over the country, making them sound way beyond their years."

Salamunovich's only regret, he says, is that he won't be moving with the chorale into Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003.

"Disney Hall is the promised land," the conductor acknowledges. "Though it's frustrating that it took so long to get built, I'm not weeping over that. For much of my career, I was a slave to music. Now it's time, God willing, for me to enjoy life."

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The Master Chorale presents three holiday concerts beginning today: a family concert this afternoon; a concert tonight, and a sing-along "Messiah" on Monday, all at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Information: (213) 972-7282.

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