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L.A. Master Chorale calls off 2020-21 season and makes a pledge on inclusion

Los Angeles Master Chorale artistic director Grant Gershon
Los Angeles Master Chorale Artistic Director Grant Gershon.
(Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

Why cancel an entire season of carefully curated work when you can save it for later? The Los Angeles Master Chorale, the resident choir of Walt Disney Concert Hall, said Wednesday it will do just that with its coronavirus-darkened 2020-21 season, pushing the entire slate of shows to 2021-22.

The company also said it was extending Artistic Director Grant Gershon’s contract through 2025 and promoting associate conductor Jenny Wong to associate artistic director. The leadership decisions dovetail with a newly unveiled five-year plan that includes a pledge to devote at least 50% of all future programming to work by composers from historically underrepresented groups in classical music, including people of color and women.

The tone of the announcement reflected the optimism that Gershon and the organization hold for the future despite the dark waters arts institutions are having to navigate.

“I’m thrilled to be continuing with the Master Chorale, particularly because I feel like there is so much unfinished business,” Gershon said in a phone interview. “We have very big plans and ambitions for the next five years.”

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Gustavo Dudamel and CEO Chad Smith cancel Disney Hall concerts through December and lay out an ambitious plan to cope with the coronavirus.

The decision to postpone the season was complicated and difficult, but Gershon said it has allowed the company to be more strategic in planning the coming year — and more nimble in solidifying online alternatives to traditional concert-hall performances.

“As a choral organization, we are Exhibit A in the mind of the public as super spreaders of the virus,” he said, referring to accounts of choral singing distributing the coronavirus.

Gershon identified what he called the Four O’s for reopening: online, outside, offsite and eventually onstage, when it’s safe.

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No matter how or when the Master Chorale goes back to performing, Gershon wants the company to better reflect the communities with which it engages. The full stop caused by the coronavirus pandemic provided an opportunity to hit the reset button and to solidify the organization’s commitment to change, he said.

“We have to acknowledge that there is systemic racism in classical music,” Gershon said. “Most of our classical music institutions were created by white men for other white people. I think systemic bias requires systemic solutions, and the crisis has allowed us to think about these things.”

The promotion of Wong, a native of Hong Kong who has been associate conductor of the chorus since 2017, is key to the five-year plan. Gershon said Wong will be instrumental in helping to identify the composers who should be on the organization’s radar for upcoming seasons.

Reena Esmail, a composer and pianist who is the master chorale’s newly appointed artist-in-residence, also will help with this mission, Gershon said.

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“I’m particularly grateful to have Reena and Jenny as part of our team because they are helping to identify a lot of other artists that I wasn’t aware of,” Gershon said.

Subscriptions for the 2020-21 season will be valid for 2021-22 as plans for the postponed season pick up where they were left off in spring during the early days of the coronavirus crisis.

Coronavirus may have silenced our symphony halls, taking away the essential communal experience of the concert as we know it.

None of which is to say the pandemic hasn’t caused the organization pain. The Master Chorale’s senior staff has taken a pay cut. Because the singers — about 100 part-timers in all — are paid per performance, none will receive Master Chorale paychecks while operations remain dark. The company said it is reaching out to the American Guild of Musicians to establish a relief fund for performers in the coming year.


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