Saturday, April 05, 2014

To the man I never sang for - an open letter to Paul Salamunovich

Dear Paul,

And I particularly use that salutation because you ARE dear - dear to the ones who sang for you over the decades, and dear to your family.  And, even though we met once and just briefly, you are dear to me.

I remember how we met.  It was, oh, 20 years ago.  I knew some people (the Brothertons) who were board members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and during the intermission of a concert that I was attending at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, they escorted me to the Founder's Room - the "inner sanctum" of the wealthy benefactor, Dorothy Chandler - where you were meeting and greeting the patrons there.  You were obviously in a hurry to return to the podium.  Grace Brotherton introduced us, and I mentioned that I, at that time, was singing with Bill Hall in the Orange County Master Chorale.  Either due to your need to return to your duties, or perhaps hearing I sang with Bill (and later on I would find out how little respect Bill had for you and your approach to choral music), you politely greeted me, listened to Grace briefly tell you about me, and then you excused yourself.  I was disappointed that we couldn't have engaged in a conversation, but I understood.  

It was during that 1994-95 season that you introduced me (and the world) to the glorious and gorgeous music of Morten Lauridsen.  I was immediately smitten with his tonal colors, and how you evoked those from the singers in the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  It was then that I decided I wanted to sing for you, too.  I knew some singers in the Chorale from a brief stint singing in a church in Pacific Palisades, and I felt that with some work, and perhaps an "in", I could come up to Los Angeles and sing for you.  So, I auditioned for and was accepted into the Pacific Chorale (which I knew you had a good relationship with John Alexander), and I was determined that after a couple of seasons there, I'd come to the LAMC.  Things changed, (singing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on their only two West coast performances made me feel that I wanted to stay with the Pacific Chorale) but I still had a great respect for what you did up in Los Angeles, and loved the music that Lauridsen composed for the Chorale.

Then you reached out and touched my soul again, in the stunning and evocative recording of "Lux Aeterna", more wonderful and stunningly beautiful music of Lauridsen.  I had sung his "O Magnum Mysterium" in the Pacific Chorale, but to hear more of his tonal color sung so exquisitely by the Los Angeles Master Chorale, moved me deeply.  And it still does.  I find that sometimes I just start humming a line from that piece, or from "Ave Maria", or the "Les Chansons de Roses", attempting to pick out the bass part, or hearing in my head the total tonal structure, and I am moved again.  I began to find out what I could about YOU, and about the magical relationship you had with Lauridsen.  I began to think about how you did things to produce that wonderful tonal color.  I listened to the recording over and over, listening to the intonation, the phrasing, the expressiveness, the diction.  Granted, you had gifted singers that were part of the whole process, but it was YOU who guided them.  It was YOU who took Lauridsen's voice and interpreted it in your direction.  

And I found myself wanting to know more about YOU, the man.  Not the director, because that's easy to find out.  And thankfully, I found YOU in Facebook, in a page dedicated to you.  It's where I became acquainted with your son Stephen, who obviously loves and respects you greatly.  It's where I read countless stories and memories by Loyola Marymount students and Chorale singers.  And in reading all these posts and reminiscences, I found out about you.  

I found that you were demanding, but NEVER harsh.  For you, it was the music that must be served, not your ego.  I found stories about how generous you were with your time and advice.  I found people who were influenced by you to become choral directors themselves.  I found people dedicated to you, not because you were charismatic, or flamboyant.  You inspired people to follow you because you lead naturally.  You know what you want, and you strive to get it.  I read recently that you "imagine" the sound in your head, and shape the singer's tone until you get it.  I find that I too, as a budding choral director, feel that way.  

And then just yesterday, with all the accolades and tributes, I found out that you never took formal education in choral directing or singing.  That you, like another choral icon, Robert Shaw, never were formally trained as a musician (in that you didn't go to college or get a degree).  And I find that illuminating.  For I believe firmly that the gifts you possessed were God-given, and you knew that.  And so each performance was, in your mind and heart, a dedication back to God for the gift He gave you.  

I so wish there'd been a way in the last couple of years that I could have reached out to you and met you, just to discuss our mutual passion.  Your son had even given me your phone number at one point, and I hesitated to call.  Why would a giant of choral music wish to talk to me?  And now, in reading all these wonderful tributes, I realize that you would have listened to me, discussed things with me, and possibly even given me the chance to meet you.  Your generosity of spirit is now evident in all these things being written about you.  I regret never having picked up the phone to call you.

And so, dear Paul, I must say that I will miss you.  But you have left an incredible legacy in the hundreds if not thousands of people who have sung for you over the decades.  You have imprinted yourself on the souls of those who have attended any concert or workshop you directed, or purchased a Chorale CD.  You have given the world the music of Morten Lauridsen.  More than that, you have done it all with grace, humility, generosity, and the constant recognition of God as the giver of all music.  I am sure He is saying "well done, thou good and FAITHFUL servant."

Soli Deo Gloria


Anne Dawson said...

What a wonderful tribute. You're correct: he was a wonderful person. I was one of his "extended" family, one of probably thousands of people from around the country who were treated as if they were his family because he genuinely cared about everyone he met.

Larry Minton said...

Thank you for this tribute. He would have been happy to talk to you, not just because he was a gracious and kind man, but he was genuinely interested in everyone's thoughts about the inner, spiritual nature of music. He was, also, just easy to be around; at LMU, his office door was always open, and students were always there, not asking musical questions but simply at ease with a friend, whether one was a choir veteran or a rookie from a JC (me).
He did receive a BA in music from Mt. St. Mary's College around 1960, and he could be harsh, but it was fake, a motivational tool at most. Once at Loyola he got really mad at the Men's Chorus and stormed out of the rehearsal early. The next day I asked why he was so mad at us, and he just smiled, puffed on his pipe, and said "I do that once in a while just to keep them on their toes. You can't do it very often, or it won't work."

Jennifer Benjamin said...

I was in the LMU Women's Chorus that sang at the National ACDA Convention in Louisville, KY in 1989. After a standing ovation by a capacity crowd, we all gathered back stage and gathered around Paul. Instead of heading out to shake hands with his colleagues, he took the time to celebrate with us. With tears in his eyes, he said "Today, we have shared a mountain top experience. They don't come all that often. Don't forget this moment, carry it with you always." I haven't forgotten, and as a music teacher now, I strive to help my students have their own mountain top experiences. But mostly, I try to show them what the music experience is truly about. Passion, community and joy. That's what Paul taught me. With love and fond memories, rest in peace maestro. The world has lost an amazing man, but his beautiful soul resides in so many of the singers he nurtured.