Grant Gershon keeps a steady beat
This summer, Grant Gershon became the first ever music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale to lead the vocal ensemble and the Los Angeles Philharmonic together in a concert. As final preparations for the event were underway at the Hollywood Bowl, Gershon showed no signs of apprehension. Appearing on the rehearsal podium in a black T-shirt and jeans with the bangs of his sandy hair flopping boyishly over his eyes, the conductor devoted his time to chatting about the history of Haydn’s Te Deum, synchronizing phrase endings between the orchestra and chorus in Poulenc’s Gloria and running through the solos in Vivaldi’s Gloria with sopranos Jessica Rivera and Christine Brandes and alto Kelley O'Connor.
The conductor covered a lot of ground in two hours that early July day. The low-key feel of the rehearsal belied the intensity and depth of his method.
Though not widely known outside classical music circles, Gershon is one of the most respected and flexible vocal music-oriented conductors working in the field today, with two Grammy-nominated recordings and more than 75 concerts at Walt Disney Concert Hall — including world premieres by John Adams, Louis Andriessen and Steve Reich — to his name and a slew of positive reviews. “Tuesday was a night, on all levels, of glory,” Times music critic Mark Swed wrote in his critique of Gershon’s July concert. Youthful-looking, even as he approaches his 50th birthday, Gershon comes across more like the least extroverted member of a college glee club than a high-powered maestro.
“Grant’s genius and profound musicality are only matched by his kindness and tender, attentive qualities as a person,” said the director Peter Sellars, who met Gershon in 1990 during rehearsals for a Los Angeles Opera production of Adams’ “Nixon in China.”
It’s a busy year ahead for Gershon, starting with the Master Chorale, which has just released a recording of six works by American composer Nico Muhly. The 47-year-old choir is celebrating a decade under Gershon’s baton with a 10-concert program displaying the director’s combined passion for conducting the classics as well as more unusual fare. Season highlights include the Sept. 26 season-opening Rachmaninoff’s “All-Night Vigil” and in 2011 a program featuring Korean songs and the world premiere of Mark Grey’s “Mugunghwa: Rose of Sharon” with violinist Jennifer Koh as well as a concert of selections from Duke Ellington’s “Sacred Concerts.”
“While innovative programming is key at the chorale, Grant respects the classics too,” said Ann Meier Baker, president and chief executive of the choral service organization Chorus America.
With six out of 10 concerts playing to sellout audiences last season and a new recording contract with Decca underway, the Master Chorale is achieving ever-ambitious goals — and boasts the biggest operating budget ($3.5 million for the 2010-11 season) of any professional choir in the country.
The choir’s success owes much to the high standards that Gershon looks for in his singers. Not only does he seek versatility and technical mastery, but, unusually for a conductor of a large chorus, he also wants the vocalists to be intensely expressive to connect more deeply with the audience. His careful attention to text and phrasing have also helped to solidify the Master Chorale’s reputation nationally and worldwide.
“No other large chorus in America could have tackled the diverse and highly challenging pieces the Chorale has presented under Grant’s direction,” said the composer Morten Lauridsen, whose works the ensemble has premiered on numerous occasions both under Gershon and his predecessor Paul Salamunovich.
Gershon’s career simultaneously is opening up on other fronts. As the associate conductor and chorus master of the Los Angeles Opera, he will lead the world premiere performances of Daniel Catán’s new opera “Il Postino” featuring Plácido Domingo this month and will make his Santa Fe Opera debut in 2011, conducting Sellars’ new production of Vivaldi’s “Griselda.”
Domingo first worked with Gershon in 1988, when Gershon was one of the coach-accompanists for Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann” at L.A. Opera.
“It is pretty clear that his work here, both with the Master Chorale and with L.A. Opera, has been extraordinary,” Domingo said.
Gershon looks so comfortable on the podium that it’s difficult to imagine a time when standing there induced more pain in him than pleasure. Yet when his conducting career started taking off in the early 1990s as assistant conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen, the very thought of wielding a baton would induce a state of debilitating anxiety.
Gershon’s memories of having to conduct Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 on short notice when Salonen had to rush to the delivery room for the birth of his second daughter in 1994 are not positive.
“I was so nervous that I couldn’t eat or sleep,” Gershon recalled over dinner in a Hollywood restaurant in July. “I got a prescription for a beta blocker called Inderal, which I renamed ‘end it all’ only half in jest. This was one of several podium experiences during that period which made me wonder if I should reconsider this conducting thing.”
Having garnered a reputation as a “singer’s pianist” (he’s even married to a singer — the soprano Elissa Johnston), Gershon didn’t set out to become a conductor. For a time, making a living at the keyboard provided many perks, such as accompanying the soprano Kiri Te Kanawa in 1993 on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” and on tour.
“I had a general suspicion of authority,” Gershon said. “I thought that anybody who had aspirations to be a conductor was a jerk.” It was only during his years of working as the principal pianist with Los Angeles Opera from 1987 to 1994 that Gershon gradually started considering conducting as a potential career avenue. “But conducting was one of those fields where no one would hire you without experience and you needed to get hired in order to get the necessary experience.”
In 1992, Gershon’s thoughts concerning conducting coalesced when the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s then-executive director, Ernest Fleischmann, hired him as the principal coach for a production of Messiaen’s “St. François d'Assise” in Salzburg. The orchestra was undertaking a summer residency there, and both Fleishmann and Salonen had their eyes on the unassuming pianist.
“I got to know Grant as a talented young pianist and répétiteur and was completely taken by his musicality and ability to deal with all kinds of people,” Salonen said. “I soon realized that the guy had a lot more in him than rehearsing singers at the piano.” The men persuaded Gershon to pursue conducting and eventually made him assistant conductor at the Los Angeles Philharmonic, a position he held between 1994 and 1997.
During that time, Gershon first started working with the Master Chorale. The ensemble’s management brought him on to prepare the chorus for performing complex modern pieces by the likes of Boulez and Ligeti with the orchestra. The choir’s already stellar reputation and the future prospect of conducting at Walt Disney Concert Hall enticed the conductor to apply for the music director job, even though Daniel Barenboim was simultaneously courting him to move to Germany to become assistant conductor in Berlin for Staatsoper Unter den Linden.
Deciding which path to take was challenging, particularly since the classical music establishment traditionally views choral conducting as being less prestigious than orchestral and opera conducting. “The classic career decision would have been to go to Germany,” Gershon said. “But I’d been an assistant conductor for so long and was dying to be a music director. The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed that I could do something special in Los Angeles. I saw so much potential for the Master Chorale and knew that I would have the freedom to program whatever music I wanted.”
Approaching the zenith of the vocal music conducting profession with his twin positions at the Master Chorale and L.A. Opera, Gershon’s greatest challenge these days is figuring out how to go on challenging himself. Furthering the artistic growth of the Master Chorale by continuing to hire versatile singers and developing the relationship with Decca, among other goals, are at the forefront of his mind. Yet as much as Gershon pushes himself to keep moving forward, singers often remark on how laid-back he is.
“I’ve never seen a conductor as thorough or who pays as much attention to detail as Grant does, but he never raises his voice and I’ve never seen him lose his cool,” Master Chorale tenor Jon Lee Keenan said. “Grant is one of the most genuinely nice people you will ever meet,” Rivera said. “He does everything with a smile.”