Renowned Choral Conductor Paul Salamunovich Dies at 86
Acclaimed Grammy-nominated choral conductor and Los Angeles Master Chorale (LAMC) Music Director Emeritus Paul Salamunovich, whose artistry touched millions of people around the world through recordings, live performances, college and university clinics, and the numerous film scores on which he conducted and sang, has died at age 86 from multiple complications due to West Nile virus.
The California native and long-time North Hollywood resident was Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale from 1991 to 2001, Director of Choral Music at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood for 60 years (1949-2009), an esteemed music educator who held academic posts at Mount St. Mary's College and Loyola Marymount University, and an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music.
His death comes in the midst of the Chorale's 50th Anniversary Season, which opened with a multi-media retrospective concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall highlighting the signature works associated with each of the four music directors who have led the Chorale since its inception in 1964, including for Salamunovich Gregorian chant, works by Maurice Duruflé, Morten Lauridsen's O Magnum Mysterium and the remarkably prescient hymn The Lord Bless You and Keep You.
The New York Times declared the chorus "one of America's top vocal ensembles" during Salamunovich's final season with the Chorale in 2001. A major force in the resurgence of interest in choral music, he championed such leading contemporary composers as Morten Lauridsen, Dominick Argento, Ariel Quintana and Libby Larsen, helping to expand the depth and breadth of the choral music repertoire. His remarkably fruitful collaboration with Lauridsen, in particular, resulted in the Chorale's Grammy-nominated recording Lux Aeterna and ultimately helped to propel Lauridsen to become the most frequently performed American choral composer in modern history. Salamunovich also guest-conducted throughout the world and prepared choirs for such notable conductors as Igor Stravinsky, Robert Shaw, Bruno Walter, Eugene Ormandy, Alfred Wallenstein, Sir Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, Valery Gergiev and Simon Rattle. In addition, he conducted choral music on the scores for more than 100 film and television projects, including The Godfather and ER, and sang on the sound tracks of Judgment at Nuremburg, Universal, 1961, and How the West was Won, MGM, 1962, among many others.
"All of us in the Los Angeles Master Chorale family mourn the loss of Paul Salamunovich and extend loving condolences to the entire Salamunovich extended family," said LAMC President and CEO Terry Knowles. "Paul's impact on the Chorale was long, deep and powerful. Any success our organization enjoys today is rooted in Paul's artistic leadership. We honor his memory, and we will never forget him."
"Paul was one of a handful of conductors who created and shaped the sound of choral music in America," said LAMC Music Director Grant Gershon, who succeeded Salamunovich at the choir's artistic helm in 2001. "As both a teacher and performer he was hugely influential, and his signature choral sound lives on through the many conductors and choirs that he inspired. In particular, his legendary work with LAMC composer in residence Morten Lauridsen is the epitome of a successful composer-conductor relationship, and together they brought international acclaim to the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He was my friend and colleague, and I have always been hugely grateful for his support and advocacy when I took over the reins of the Chorale. We will miss him. He was a giant in the field of choral music."
Salamunovich, a protégé of legendary choral conductor Roger Wagner, has been inexorably tied to the Los Angeles Master Chorale since the beginning, having been a founding member and Assistant Conductor from its inception until 1977, as well as an integral part of its various choral precursors.
Born on June 7, 1927, in Redondo Beach, California, Salamunovich attended St. James Elementary School, where he sang in a boys choir steeped in Gregorian chant, providing an early foundation for his career and nurturing his life-long passion for Gregorian chant. He had the good fortune of watching Wagner conduct his first concert with the Wagner Men and Boys Choir, which was presented at St. James Parish. When Salamunovich was about 13 years old, his family moved to Hollywood. He began singing for Richard Keys Biggs at the Blessed Sacrament Church and formally met Wagner, who invited him to watch his choir rehearse at St. Joseph's Church in downtown Los Angeles. Salamunovich rode the streetcar to downtown by himself on several occasions to observe Wagner, who took note of the regular visitor and invited him to sing with his choir. Following his graduation from Hollywood High School in 1945, Salamunovich enlisted in the Navy, serving in Pearl Harbor after World War II.
He moved back to Los Angeles after completing his enlistment at age 19 and was asked by Wagner to join his newly formed Los Angeles Youth Chorus, which included among its members 13-year old Marilyn Horne and 14-year old Marni Nixon, and which in 1948 evolved into the Roger Wagner Chorale, of which Salamunovich was a founding member. At Wagner's urging, Salamunovich enrolled at Mt. St. Mary's College to study music and then launched a career in choral conducting. Notably, Salamunovich took over Wagner's choir director post at St. Charles Borromeo Church in 1949 when Wagner left to focus on other conducting interests; Salamunovich retained the post for 60 years until his retirement in 2009. Wagner, impressed by Salamunovich's considerable skills, continued to utilize him and tapped him to be Assistant Conductor of the Roger Wagner Chorale from 1953 to 1977.
Then, in 1964, Wagner - with the support of the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce and local businessmen Z. Wayne Griffin, Harrison A. Price, Donald J. Nores and Marshall A. Rutter - formed another new chorus, the Los Angeles Master Chorale, which became a founding resident company of the Music Center just as construction on its first home, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, was being completed. Again, Wagner selected Salamunovich, who was a founding member of the independent professional choir, to be its assistant conductor, a position he held until 1977 when Salamunovich resigned to pursue other leading positions he was then being offered.
Although it was expected by many that Salamunovich would succeed Wagner as the Chorale's Music Director, an appointment for which Wagner himself lobbied, Salamunovich's schedule prevented consideration of the possibility and the Board of Directors instead selected Scottish opera conductor John Currie as Wagner's successor. In 1991, after Currie's somewhat turbulent tenure concluded, Salamunovich accepted the position as music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. He immediately began rebuilding the Chorale's Wagner era signature "pyramid" choral sound anchored by rich robust bass and capped by shimmering soprano. Having led many of the Chorale's rehearsals while he served as Wagner's assistant, Salamunovich had had an indelible impact on the Chorale's early sound. The press heralded his return and his efforts, stating, "The panache is back; Paul Salamunovich has restored the L.A. Master Chorale to its former glory" (Los Angeles Times).