interview by Linda Rapka, Overture Managing Editor
That rare breed of a Los Angeles native, Grant Gershon began his long and varied musical journey taking piano lessons at age 5. After graduating from USC, he found success as a pianist and served as assistant conductor and principal pianist with the LA Opera from 1988 to 1994, also garnering a reputation as one of the nation’s exceptional vocal coaches. He was Assistant Conductor of the LA Philharmonic from 1994 to 1997 and served as Music Director of the Idyllwild Arts Festival Chorus from 2003 to 2007. Esteemed by colleagues as “a complete musician” and lauded for championing new music, Maestro Gershon this season continues in his third year as Associate Conductor/Chorus Master of the LA Opera and celebrates his landmark 10th year at the helm of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
How did you come to start piano lessons at such a young age?
It was basically sibling rivalry. I have an older brother and sister and they were both taking piano lessons, and I was jealous.
Your mother was a piano teacher. Did you take lessons from her?
No. She was wise enough to not teach her own kids, and now that I have kids I see the wisdom in that even more strongly!
When did you realize music would become your life’s work and passion?
I can really pinpoint it to the summer after my freshman year of high school. I was at the Idyllwild Summer Music Camp and was singing in the choir that summer. We did a performance of the Mozart ‘Requiem’ and it was incredible. It was life changing in every way. That’s really when I knew that I just had to do this.
You started with the LA Opera as a repetatur. How did that lead to conducting?
I really had no inkling initially that conducting was in the cards. Gradually as I was working at LA Opera I was called upon to do backstage conducting, and from there it started to be conducting rehearsals. But the real shift came in 1992 when I worked with Esa-Pekka Salonen at the Salzburg Festival when the LA Philharmonic was in residency there that summer. We worked on an opera by Messiaen and I was again the head coach and pianist. At the end of the summer Esa-Pekka and Ernest Fleischmann took me aside and told me that they felt strongly that I should be pursuing conducting. I was absolutely flabbergasted. They helped me to get into the Aspen seminar for conductors the following summer. One thing led to another and I ended up as assistant conductor at the LA Phil from ’94 to ’97. Everything that I have learned about conducting is from Esa-Pekka. He’s a wonderful mentor.
How did you make the transition from the symphonic world to the choral world?
Choral music in some ways was really my first love, all the way back to this formative experience in high school. I sang in choirs all through college, and it was a really big part of my life. Then I left that behind for piano and then conducting. But while I was working for the Philharmonic in the ’90s I had a couple of opportunities to work with the Master Chorale, and it really felt like a homecoming to work in choral music again. When Paul Salamunovich announced that he was retiring, I started thinking about how interesting this might be. It’s always been a great ensemble, and it was at a very high artistic level at that point when Paul retired. At the same time there was this great energy around the organization. I think they really wanted to be challenged and to take a new direction. It was because of the specific circumstances of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, the kind of musician they were interested in for the position that just created for me the perfect situation to go back to my roots in the choral world.
What is it like to work with the Chorale and the LA Opera at the same time?
There’s a fantastic yin and yang to working in the Opera at the same time as you’re working in concert situations. I talk to James Conlon about this a lot because he straddles both worlds so well. One of the differences is for a conductor in a concert situation, you really are in control. There are very few variables compared to conducting in opera, where there’s a million different things that can go wrong. At the same time, there’s so much energy and excitement — at times it borders on hysteria! It’s very stimulating.
Your career has taken quite a varied path. Did you actively seek out these opportunities, or did they find you?
For most musicians, there’s so much serendipity involved. It’s so hard to predict. Certainly with me there was no kind of ‘master plan.’ But I really couldn’t be happier with the way things have played out, now being at the Master Chorale and working with this incredible organization over these 10 years, and being back at LA Opera as well. It’s like a dream come true.
You’re widely lauded as an ardent champion of new music and for bringing eclectic, rather bold programming to the Chorale. What gives you the courage to stray the from traditional repertoire?
I wish I could say that it’s about courage, but it’s really simply programming the music that I love. I’m in this wonderful position where I am able to present to our audiences music that I am excited about and that resonates deeply with me, and it just so happens that ends up being an interesting mix of old and new, and of familiar and unfamiliar.
The Chorale musicians tell me they enjoy and appreciate your being so allowing of them to express their own creativity, more so than other conductors.
I’m glad to hear that. I think my role is to guide to the players and singers simply to express themselves as clearly and as committed as possible within the ensemble.
Do you still play piano?
I try to keep my piano playing up as much as possible. I miss it, I have to say. I love just sitting down at the piano and just going through Beethoven sonatas. It’s such a huge pleasure to actually make music. As a conductor, it’s a different thing to put pedal to metal. I do miss that. I relish the occasional opportunity that I still have to perform as a pianist.
There’s a quote from composer John Adams calling you “one of those rarities musicians call ‘a complete musician.'” What do you say to that?
When I saw that quote, I was just floored, and deeply humbled. Having the opportunity to work with a composer of John’s stature, a composer who we’ll be looking back on years from now, and just to be able to hang out and have a beer and talk life and philosophy, it’s incredible. I feel very, very fortunate.
Every time I’ve seen you on stage, you seem to exude just pure joy. You have a fun rapport with the audience and the musicians.
There’s no place that I would rather be than where I am now with these players and these singers. I think for me also, because I’ve lived most of my life here now in Los Angeles, the players and the singers are friends that go back many years in a lot of cases. They’re not anonymous strangers you’re standing in front of. I’m making music with close, dear friends.
Who were your mentors?
For conducting, Esa-Pekka more so than anybody. For piano I had a number of wonderful teachers over the years. There was one in particular, Jean Barr, who was at USC when I was there. She was the kind of teacher who was not just about the music, but about every aspect of being a performer, from the poetry of it down to what you should wear and eat before a performance, the whole package. I am hugely indebted to her for that kind of wisdom.
You’re married to soprano Elissa Johnston. Do you ever work together?
Once or twice a year we’re in a recital together. Elissa’s been guest soloist with pretty much every organization in town, including the Master Chorale. One of my most enjoyable gigs in recent years was with City Ballet in New York. Elissa was hired to sing a set of Strauss songs with orchestra, and they asked her who she would recommend to conduct. And luckily she recommended me! That was one of those great situations that happens now from time to time where I’m simple the soprano’s husband, and I love that.
Did you ever have any other aspirations other than music?
I’ve had lots of other interests over the years, but I always knew that my life would be full with music. And of course now with music and family as well. We have two kids; Claire is 11 and Samuel is 8.
With all the work you do with so the Chorale and LA Opera, what do you find time for when you’re not working?
Next week we’re going to be off the grid for a week up in the high Sierras for a camping trip. To me, anytime we have a chance to go on vacation, it’s almost always out into the wilderness rather than to a city. Paris is nice, but that’s for gigging.
That’s almost depressing — to think of all these great cities as being “work.”
I definitely fit in some fun in those cities! But I find that in this profession, for me the most satisfying break is to be out in nature.
It’s been 10 years with the Chorale. Does it feel like it’s been a decade?
It’s gone by in some ways so fast, but at the same time when I look back on all of the music that we’ve performed and all the great things that have happened with the organization, it feels like the 10 years have been very full of activity.
What are you looking forward most to in the upcoming season?
Every concert that we’re doing at Disney Hall this year really feels like an event. Of course opening with the Rachmaninoff “All-Night Vigil,” which is one of my all-time favorite pieces. I look forward to the spring doing Haydn’s “Creations” with full orchestra and soloists; this work to me is one of the all-time high points in chorale music. And to have this premiere with composer Mark Grey and (violinist) Jennifer Koh, there’s just so much great music coming out. And of course the other thing for us is the opportunity to work with the Philharmonic and work with Gustavo Dudamel. It’s just pure, pure joy.
It seems like you and Dudamel are paralleled with your passion for new music and the expansion of traditional repertoire.
I think that the Philharmonic and the Master Chorale are really nicely aligned these days. We definitely share a world view about music, and we also share terrifically eager and adventurous audiences. When I talk to my colleagues around the country there’s so much fantastic envy when people look at Los Angeles and see not only what we’re doing, but see the audience response is to what we’re doing. There’s something really special going on in the city right now.
What is it like for you to be playing a role in shaping this special period in Los Angeles’ artistic history?
It really is great. At the same time I feel like we really can’t ever take anything for granted. I don’t want people to look back 30 years from now and say, ‘Oh yeah, that was a nice little golden era that lasted for a few years there.’ This is something that we want to sustain for as long as we’re all around making music.
Musicians of the L.A. Master Chorale Sound Off on 10 Years With Gershon
“The truth is that everyone really loves Grant,” said oboist Joel Timm, echoing a sentiment shared by many musicians of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Praised for bringing eclectic new programming to the traditional chorale repertoire, Gershon is widely praised by the musicians for his unique conducting style, his musicianship, and the level of respect with which he treats them.
“He is generous to a fault,” said baritone Scott Graff, who came to the Chorale during Gershon’s first season. “He’s delightful to work for, and he’s delightful to work with. You get the very strong impression from the podium when he’s on it that he is aware that as a conductor he makes no sound, is and is completely reliant on the people on stage to make that sound. He inspires a lot of loyalty in the folks he works with.”
Principal percussionist Theresa Dimond first met Gershon at USC. With careers paralleling each other, they worked together at the LA Opera in the late 1980s, and she belonged to both the Chorale and the LA Opera orchestras when he came on board. “His demeanor has not changed much since we were college students together,” Dimond said. “Music was always sort of a cooperative thing with him, and still is. He trusts the musicians to bring a certain voice to the project, and he honors that voice. It’s more of a partnership rather than a czarship. There are a lot of untrusting conductors that don’t trust you’ll rise to the occasion if need be. There’s never a time where Grant doesn’t trust his musicians to do what they need to do.”
Known as an ardent champion of new music, Gershon has led the Chorale in numerous world premiere performances as well as in lesser-known choral works. “The programming is a really strong point,” said Timm, who has played oboe with the LAMC for 22 years. “It really breathes life and validates the whole genre of chorales. For the most part, a lot of chorales play and sing a basic handful of major pieces written for orchestra and chorus. He has totally expanded that whole genre. Audiences have really responded.”
“Grant has changed the face of the Chorale in terms of what kind of literature they sing,” said Steve Scharf, violinist and LAMC orchestra contractor since the Salamunovich years. “They do a lot more modern works, which he is fairly well known for. He’s exemplary in conducting those kinds of things and the choir sounds fabulous.”
“Grant definitely has upped the ante with the new music,” said concertmaster Ralph Morrison. “It’s nice to do things that are new. It is scarier that way; until you play the first note you don’t know what’s gonna be going on around you. But it’s fun to do. We’re not doing the same thing you’ve done a million times before.”
“I think some of the choruses in the U.S. tend to get into programming ruts,” Dimond said. “While it’s wonderful to do ‘Carmina Burana’ once in a while, it’s fun to do commissions and 20th century pieces. The choir has become much more adept and well-rounded because of his programming. It’s really fun to be challenged.”
“I really feel Grant brought us into the 21st century,” said alto Amy Fogerson, who has been with the LAMC for 24 years. “Grant is bright and more modern which is conducive and appropriate for contemporary music, which we’re doing a lot of now.”
“He came to conducting through the symphonic model,” Graff said. “Grant doesn’t have the usual bag of choral conductor tricks. By skipping that step he doesn’t really look at it as having to fit into this particular model or mode.”
Gershon is known for treating his musicians with genuine respect. “I don’t think he likes the distinction between musician and singer,” Graff said. “He likes to call singers musicians, and he likes to treat us as musicians, and we tend to respond to that call.”
“Oftentimes when we’re doing a piece, Grant has his hands full with the choir, so players in leadership roles in the orchestra will offer suggestions to make the performance into a better situation, and he receives those extremely well,” Scharf said. “He’s not controlling. But he is demanding. He does let the singers and musicians know what he thinks is not right and gives them direction, but he doesn’t force them into anything, and they appreciate that very much.”
Gershon’s talents as music director often shine through when guiding the musicians through a particularly difficult piece. “He is an unbelievable musician,” Fogerson said. “He can look at any score and understand what’s going on with it pretty much immediately! He can take the hardest, most intimidating piece and take us through it in a way that makes it accessible and understandable to us.”
“One of his rare gifts is that he’s able to take what is obscure and seemingly impenetrable and translate it for us who might be reading the dotted 30-second notes and the meter changes with multi-tritone changes and want to run away,” Graff said. “He’s got great interpretive skill in that regard and really knows how to make something not only we can interpret, but can also really enjoy and make music out of.”
“He’s so clear and so easy to follow and such a calming presence on the podium,” Morrison said. “He has a clear idea what he wants and so clear on giving it especially in difficult music things happening all over the place. We did an interesting piece with four of the singers last summer It was as a very, very difficult piece. At first I hated it and was saying, ‘Why did I agree to do this project?’ But by the time we got to the performance I was starting to like that piece. Everyone sent e-mails back and forth saying what a great experience we’d just had. We could never have done that without Grant out there.”
Now with 10 years under his belt at LAMC, Gershon continues in his pursuit of eclectic programming and continues to inspire, both on and off the podium.
“To watch the development of the ensemble and him as a conductor and our place in the pantheon of Los Angeles arts organizations has been pretty exciting,” Graff said. It wouldn’t have happened in the same way without Grant’s leadership.”