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).
By the end of Salamunovich's tenure 10 years later in 2001, he was resoundingly lauded for developing the Chorale's "wide dynamic palette" (Los Angeles Times) and "sterling, precise singing" (Daily Variety). Critics further declared, "For the past decade (the Chorale) has reached new heights under the baton of Music Director Paul Salamunovich" (Pasadena Star-News), and Salamunovich has "sharpened and refined his choral instrument to a virtually unbeatable level" (Los Angeles Times).
But of all of Salamunovich's remarkable accomplishments during his long and productive career, he is most closely associated with the extremely productive relationship he shared with Morten Lauridsen, who served as the Chorale's first composer in residence from 1995 to 2001, and whose critically acclaimed choral "blockbusters" Lux Aeterna, O Magnum Mysterium and Ave Maria, all written for the chorus, are among the works included in the Chorale's 1998 Grammy-nominated, best-selling recording "Lux Aeterna" conducted by Salamunovich. Under Salamunovich's direction, the lush recording, with its "radiantly beautiful music," (Wall St. Journal) and "affecting emotional pull" (Daily Telegraph), elevated the Master Chorale and Lauridsen to international prominence.
Salamunovich was also noted for his keen interpretations of renowned 20th century French composer Maurice Duruflé's works for choir and orchestra. In particular, they collaborated on a 1967 performance of Duruflé's Requiem, Op. 9, for which Salamunovich prepared the St. Charles Borromeo Choir and the composer conducted. Significantly impressed by Salamunovich's talents during their only time working together, Duruflé kept a picture of the two of them that still hangs in his home in Paris, which is curated by the Duruflé Society.
For his final season with the Chorale in 2000-2001, Salamunovich conducted five concerts, including a rare performance of the Mass in C# Minor by Vierne for double organ and choir with renowned organist Frederick Swann at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles. The other concerts, held at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, featured choral works by Mozart, Britten, Kodály, Parry, Verdi, Argento, Duruflé, Susa, and Pinkham, among others. The Chorale also gave two joint performance of Bach's B Minor Mass with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at UCLA's Royce Hall and the Alex Theatre in Glendale. And for his finale as Music Director, Salamunovich conducted four of his favorite pieces: Verdi's Stabat Mater, Holst's Hymn of Jesus, Neilsen's Hymnus Amoris and, of course, Lauridsen's Lux Aeterna. He managed to accomplish all this while successfully battling lymphoma, diagnosed at the beginning of the season.
Following his retirement, Salamunovich continued his close relationship with the Chorale, regularly attending the chorus's concerts and galas, and returned to the Chorale as a guest conductor in a sold-out concert of some of his favorite choral works during the Chorale's second season in Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2005.
As a conductor and former singer, Salamunovich's musical contributions spanned the spectrum from classical, pop and jazz to folk and new age music with such diverse artists as Stan Kenton, Liz Story and Cirque de Soleil. He conducted countless live performances; sang or conducted on more than 20 recordings, including three with the Los Angeles Master Chorale; helped to shape the lives of thousands of students as a faculty member at Loyola Marymount University for 28 years and at Mt. St. Mary's College for 18; provided training to tens of thousands more around the world as an in-demand clinician; and helped provide spiritual fulfillment to countless others as Music Director of the St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood. Salamunovich also served as Conductor in Residence at the University of Western Australia in Perth and the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music in Rome.
Salamunovich's other film credits include conducting choral music on the scores of Angels and Demons, First Knight, Air Force One, A.I., Peter Pan, Flatliners and The Sum of All Fears, among many others. Earlier in his career, he sang on the motion picture soundtracks of The Great Imposter, Universal, 1960; The Last Sunset, Universal, 1961; The Spiral Road, Universal, 1963; Captain Newman, M.D., Universal, 1963, Dead Ringer, Warner Bros., 1963; War Lord, Universal, 1965; The Trouble with Angels, Columbia, 1965; Angel in My Pocket, Universal, 1965; and The Last of Sheila, Warner Bros., 1973.
With the choir at St. Charles Borromeo he recorded five albums of sacred music and was featured on Andy Williams' 1969 recording of "Battle Hymn of the Republic" as well as on Williams' 1986 NBC-TV Christmas Eve Special hosted by Henry Mancini and Doc Severinsen. In addition, in 1985 the St. Charles Borromeo Choir was invited by the Papal Church Music Society to tour Europe in conjunction with the 8th International Convention of Sacred Music, which included a private audience with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican Palace. In 1987, the church's choir sang at the City of Los Angeles's official reception for the Pope, and the following year it became the first American choir invited to sing High Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul at St. Peter's Square in Rome with the Pope presiding. It holds the distinction of being the only parish choir to be so honored.
Among numerous accolades, Salamunovich received a Papal knighthood as a Knight Commander in the Order of St. Gregory the Great from Pope Paul VI in 1969; the "Distinguished Artist Award" from the Music Center of Los Angeles in 2005; the "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Chorale Directors Association in 2000; and the Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, known as the "Cross of Honour," the highest medal that can be awarded by the Papacy to the laity. He was inducted into the Loyola Marymount Faculty Hall of Fame in 2012. He also holds honorary doctorates from Loyola Marymount University and the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota.
Salamunovich is survived by his wife of nearly 64 years, Dottie, sons John of Houston, Texas, Stephen of Seattle, Washington, Joseph of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and Thomas of Vail, Colorado. He is also survived by his older brother Joseph of Studio City, son-in-law, Gordon Goodman, daughters-in-law Claire, Sheila, Meredith and Nancy Salamunovich, 11 grandchildren and 4 great-grandchildren. His daughter, Nanette, preceded him in death in 1977. Public services are pending and the burial will be private.