Chorale master Paul Salamunovich once said that the greatest moment of his life was a 1988 concert at the Vatican for Pope John Paul II with the group he had led continuously since 1949, the St. Charles Borromeo Church Choir of North Hollywood.
But it was his experience with choral music as a Southern California teenager that provided the underpinning for nearly everything he did over the next six-plus decades, including his role in shaping the Los Angeles Master Chorale into one of the world’s finest choirs.
“One of the joys [in life] is sharing what you know, whether from the stage or the classroom,” said the Grammy-nominated conductor. “I had such overwhelming experiences and joys at 15, 16 and 17, and I want other people to have that experience.”
Salamunovich, 86, died Thursday at Sherman Oaks Hospital of complications from West Nile virus, said Libby Huebner, spokeswoman for the Master Chorale.
He never formally studied choral music but sang in a boys choir at St. James Elementary School in Redondo Beach. As a teenager during World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and, on his discharge in 1946, joined the Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorus. That ensemble two years later became the Roger Wagner Chorale, named for the man who had become Salamunovich’s mentor.
“Everything I learned was by experience with Roger,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1989. “I was so sensitive to it, I just latched on to everything. I was so in love with choral music.”
Wagner named Salamunovich assistant conductor in 1953. When Wagner created the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 1964, Salamunovich continued in the role as assistant conductor until 1977 when he left to pursue other opportunities. He returned to the group as music director in 1991.
Born June 7, 1927, in Redondo Beach, Salamunovich was immersed in Gregorian chants at parochial school. The form influenced him throughout his life.
In the Los Angeles Concert Youth Choir, he sang alongside future opera star Marilyn Horne, who was 13, and Marni Nixon, then 14, who became a go-to voice for movie actors requiring a vocal stand-in during musical numbers.
While concentrating on choral music, Salamunovich also was part of a male jazz quartet in the 1950s that worked with bandleader and composer Stan Kenton. He sang for movies and TV shows in the 1950s and ‘60s, and led the chorus that recorded “Walt Disney Presents It’s a Small World,” a 1964 collection of folk songs created for the opening of Disney’s “Small World” attraction.
He guest-conducted around the world and helped prepare choirs to work with superstar conductors, including Igor Stravinsky, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini and Simon Rattle.
But Salamunovich’s greatest legacy may be his leadership of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1991 to 2001. Although he had been expected to take over when Wagner left in 1986, the choir’s board chose Scottish conductor John Currie, who left after a rocky five years.
Salamunovich succeeded Currie and was praised by critics for restoring the group to its former stature. He also forged a symbiotic relationship with composer Morten Lauridsen that led to a Grammy nomination for their 1998 recording of “Lux Aeterna,” which Lauridsen wrote for the Master Chorale.
“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,” Lauridsen told The Times in 2000. Lauridsen also wrote a setting of “Ave Maria” as a gift for Salamunovich’s 70th birthday in 1997.
The Master Chorale’s distinctive sound under Salamunovich was based on the model created by Wagner, which he referred to as “the pyramid.”
“The foundation is built on the male voices,” Salamunovich said. “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.’”
That concept was easy for the basses and tenors to embrace, but not always for the sopranos.
“A lot of sopranos,” Salamunovich said in a 1994 Times interview, “don’t like restraining their voices. They resent it. But they don’t resent the beautiful product that comes from it.”
Of Salamunovich’s 2001 farewell performance, Times critic Mark Swed wrote: “The knowledge that Salamunovich represents everything the Master Chorale is today could be heard in cheering as loud as can be imagined at a classical music concert.... For 55 of his 73 years, he has been associated with this chorus in all its manifestations. Its lambent, blended sound today is the Salamunovich Sound.”
Near the end of his time leading the Master Chorale, Salamunovich was treated for lymphoma and also had both hips replaced. Still, he continued working with the St. Charles Borromeo Choir and teaching at Loyola Marymount University and Mount St. Mary’s College. He also was an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music.
Grant Gershon succeeded Salamunovich as music director of the L.A. Master Chorale.
Salamunovich emphasized a naturalistic approach to choral singing, and urged singers to comprehend the meaning not just of words but of sounds.
“Singing is an extension of speech, and superb singers are superb actors,” he said. “You have to act the meaning of the text. It’s about emotional involvement and good technique…"
For Salamunovich, vocal music was literally a religious experience.
“I learned in parochial school that praying is not talking to God; it’s lifting the mind and heart to God,” he told the Ventura County Star in 2004. “Music feeds the heart, and the words feed the mind. When the choir is done singing at the end of a concert, I say privately to myself, ‘Amen.’”
Salamunovich, who lived in North Hollywood, is survived by his wife of more than 60 years, Dottie, whom he met when they attended Hollywood High School; sons John of Houston, Stephen of Seattle, Joseph of Glen Ellyn, Ill., and Thomas of Vail, Colo.; 11 grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and his brother Joseph, of Studio City. A daughter, Nanette, then 23, died in 1977.
Plans for a public memorial service are pending.