The program for the Los Angeles Master Chorale on Sunday, Nov. 17 was a conversational double bilI, conducted by Grant Gershon. It opened with Bach’s luminous Magnificat, which Gershon led with an agile bearing, bright but relaxed.
Then there was the contemporary selection – the West Coast premiere of Reena Esmail’s, This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity. The piece, which took 12 years to compose and involved 22 collaborators, includes Western choral and orchestral elements alongside Indian rhythms and improvisations on sitar and tabla, as well as poetry from seven Hindi languages used to evoke seven Eastern religions.
For this selection, Gershon’s stance at the podium turned alert and activated, his two arms flowing without rest to offer distinctive suggestions, assertions and support for the packed stage of singers and musicians.
The end effect demonstrated an impressive range, bridging the glory of Bach and the hopeful experimentation of Esmail.
On the Monday morning after the Sunday concert – on his first break in months from rehearsing and conducting – Gershon met for an interview in Eagle Rock, where he has lived for the past nearly 20 years with his wife, the soprano, Elissa Johnston and their two children. It was soon evident from the conversation that he possesses a rare combination of skills and passions that make him unusually well suited to lead the Chorale.
He was born and raised in L.A., and excelled at piano from childhood; his mother was a piano teacher. But a single-minded pursuit of piano was not in the cards. Hinting at a certain shyness as a teenager, he says his parents “shipped him off” to a two-week choral program one summer, where the group spent the entire time working on Mozart’s Requiem. It was a completely new musical experience for him. “The idea of being able to make music in a social situation and really interacting and making friends with other musicians was mind-blowing,” he recalled. Though he continued to play piano through high school at Alhambra High and even majored in piano at USC, the seed had been planted for a life in choral music.
After college in 1988, he was hired at the Music Center downtown as a pianist and coach for the L.A. Opera, where the resident conductor, Randy Behr, gave him crash courses in conducting so that he could help during rehearsals. From there, he began to substitute for resident conductors when they were unavailable. In 1992, then conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Esa-Pekka Salonen, recognizing Gershon’s prowess, encouraged and mentored him toward a full-time conducting career. By 1994, he was an Assistant Conductor for the L.A. Phil and, in 1999, conducted the L.A. Master Chorale for the first time, preparing them for a performance of Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible that earned rave reviews. In 2001, he became the Chorale’s director.
His position – officially titled the Kiki & David Gindler Artistic Director of the L.A. Master Chorale and Resident Conductor of the L.A. Opera — is a unique perch in the music world. Like other professional choirs, the L.A Master Chorale performs with a symphony (the L.A Philharmonic). But unlike the others, the 100-member choir is the only fully paid, professional master chorale in the nation that has its own, independent season at its own principal venue, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. The opportunity to select and present chorale music in its own right — with an ensemble he describes as “gifted vocally”, “sophisticated musically”, and “incredible” — has allowed Gershon to take chorale performance notches higher than it has ever been.
In recent years, Gershon has conducted the L.A. Master Chorale performing the debut choral works of John Adams, the Pulitzer Prize winning minimalist composer. He collaborates regularly with Peter Sellars, the avant-garde theater director. Their most recent collaboration Lagrime di San Pietro, is touring internationally through 2019. Opera-like in its ambition and staging, the work features 21 members of the Chorale, singing acappella Renaissance songs.
Whether classical or contemporary, what Gershon looks for is music that uncovers, or discovers, a common humanity. “I feel it’s important that the music reflects values and helps create understanding,” he said. “That’s not to say everything has to be beautiful and easy. It can be challenging. But it has to have a universal message.”
What Gershon has found and what science has confirmed is that choral music is an extraordinary vehicle for just such messages.
“One of the things they’ve been able to monitor is that people’s heart rates start to align in a choir and their heart beats start to align,” said Gershon. “…that’s a powerful linking that I think is unique to the breathing, the shared phrasing that happens and the shared response to the music,” he said, adding as he grinned broadly, “Of course, I’m a total choir geek.”
Christmas with Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Master Chorale
Grant Gershon will conduct the L.A. Master Chorale in five Christmas concerts this month at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown L.A. Tickets start at $29 and are available from lamasterchorale.org or by phoning the box office at 213-972-7282.
English Cathedral Christmas presents the great, unbroken tradition of British carols and anthems from its origins in the 16th century to modern day.
Sunday, Dec. 2 / 7 p.m.
Festival of Carols combines traditional favorites with newer arrangements and special seasonal surprises.
Saturday, Dec. 8 / 2 p.m.
Saturday, Dec. 15 / 2 p.m.
Handel’s Messiah, thrilling and glorious, is the not-to-be-missed Christmastime concert experience.
Sunday, Dec. 16 / 7 p.m.
38TH MESSIAH Sing-Along The audience is the chorus in this popular do-it-yourself version of Handel’s Messiah. You can bring your own score or buy one in the lobby.
Monday, Dec. 17 / 7:30 p.m.