Member Spotlight: Grant Gershon, Los Angeles Master Chorale

Gershon’s vision as he begins his 14th season with the Master Chorale is to break down barriers in choral music and redefine the concert experience.

Your title has changed from music director to artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and with that change come plans for expanding the choral experience for singers and audiences. What is motivating you?

As the largest choral organization in the country, by budget measures, we have a responsibility to lead by example. We are operating at a very high level artistically but there is a lot of room for us to grow. There is certainly more that we can do to build our audience in Los Angeles. So the double whammy of this large contract extension and the title change is really about creating the opportunity for us to maximize the experience that our music creates for our audience and our singers.

To my mind it is a way to challenge ourselves and to dream big—to look at our artistic planning on a much more far-reaching schedule. Right now we are in the midst of formulating a five-year artistic plan, which will go along with a three-year strategic plan. The three-year time frame is very normal for us and for a lot of artistic organizations. But the five-year plan allows us to think about and plan carefully for more complex projects and collaborations and to do the legwork, fundraising, and infrastructure that some of these project would require.

Without giving away any secrets, can you give us a flavor of the more adventurous programs you are planning to do? 

We are looking at ways to open up the concert experience. That will involve collaborations with stage directors, choreographers, and visual artists. We want to be very careful that this is not grafted on top of what we do or gimmicky. We are working with people who really understand the music and what we are about as an artistic entity. Therefore, they can collaborate in ways that deepen the experience of the music for our audiences.

A good example is the new John Adams piece, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, that we did the last two years with the LA Philharmonic. It was first presented in the 2011-12 season as a concert work, and then in the 2013-2014 season we revisited it as a fully staged piece with Peter Sellars as stage director. We performed that version in Disney Hall and then took it on tour. 

When you work with an artist of the vision and inspiration of Peter Sellars, it creates for everyone involved a completely new way of thinking about the music at hand. That is the kind of collaboration we are looking to do, ideally, at least once a season over the next five years.

What about the visual aspect for the singers? We are so accustomed to seeing choral singers dressed in black and lined up in a row.

We have this wonderful resource in LA, which is the Disney Concert Hall. It is in the round, has the audience surrounding us and very close, and has a very flexible stage that has different levels on pneumatic lifts. So there are all sorts of possibilities within our own concert venue to break that mold. We have experimented with this over the last few seasons and we will continue to explore ways to break the very rigid aspect of what most people expect from a choral concert.

There are a lot of organizations we can look to for inspiration, particularly in Europe and in Asia. Groups like the Incheon City Chorale in Korea and the radio choruses in Sweden, Berlin, and the Netherlands and some of the great youth choirs are really finding ways to break the mold. If you go to the World Choir Games for instance, you see groups left and right that are dispensing with the formal trappings of the concert experience. 

I have a real aversion at this point in my life to tuxedos and singers in lines on risers. So we are looking at every opportunity to make the experience more flexible and in the end, more reflective of the music we sing, which is anything but static and rigid. 
Los Angeles Master Chorale (Photo Credit: Russell Scoffin)

So are you wanting to create more theatrical kinds of experiences for audiences?

I think of it as a more complete and more immersive experience. We are looking at any possibilities to surprise our audience and defy expectations. There are also possibilities for more audience participation. The sound from the audience in Disney Hall is as clear and resonant and immediate as the sound from the stage. That means that events like our high school choir festival and our sing-along Messiahs absolutely levitate the entire concert hall. So there is a lot of potential there for us to open up those kinds of experiences.

How are you envisioning the Chorale’s education programs changing and expanding?

We are very proud of our Voices Within program, which has been very successful over the past 12 years, and our high school choir festival, which is one of the most impactful festivals that I know of. But we have an opportunity now to look very carefully at what has been successful and what could be improved and to look at new models.

Our sister organization, the LA Phil, is implementing a version of El Sistema under the leadership of Gustavo Dudamel. That is a powerful model and we are looking at it closely to see how it could translate to what we are doing. We are going to be putting a lot of time and effort and thought into our education programs so that two or three years down the line, they will look different and have even more impact on more students. 

As exciting as it is to sing in Disney Hall, you are also interested in taking the Master Chorale’s offerings into smaller venues. What are your ideas in that regard?

Disney Hall has been such a powerful tool for the Master Chorale and the LA Phil, that in its first 10 years we have concentrated almost all of our efforts and events there. But there is a sizeable body of repertoire that I would like to explore that is not suitable for a 2,100-seat concert hall. And there are so many communities that make up Los Angeles. There are many potential audience members who will not make the trip downtown.

So we want to create a concert series that will allow us to explore alternative venues. For the time being I am calling the series “Music in Resonant Spaces.” The idea is that anything is fair game, from a chapel to a parking garage to a gymnasium—any place where the singers will sound amazing. That initiative will probably launch in the 2015-16 season. 

Those kinds of concerts will also allow you to collaborate with new composers.

The list of composers that I am really excited about these days is enormous. We are in the midst of such a renaissance of great composers having rediscovered the voice. The list is far larger than we can fit in our regular concert season. So exploring alternate venues and working on a smaller scale gives us much more flexibility to present even more new music and deepen our relationships with the new generation of composers. 

Are there any lessons that other choral organizations can learn from how the LA Master Chorale is pursuing its new vision?

Everything in life is a balance. To me it is a matter of being bold and fearless in the spotlight, but extremely methodical and circumspect behind the scenes. As Michael Kaiser talks about, you need to give yourself the right timeline to roll out initiatives and events. Give yourself the time to be bold artistically but to back it up with solid planning, data, and infrastructure, so that you greatly increase the chance of success.

How has Chorus America been helpful to you?

It has given me the opportunity to interact with my own personal heroes in the field and to share ideas—at the conference, through The Voice, and with my work on the board. It is a very exciting time in the choral field right now. There is so much energy, so many interesting start-up organizations, groups with clearly defined artistic profiles, and extremely energized singers and artistic directors. And Chorus America brings them all together.

Sometimes I think there are very few genuinely new ideas under the sun. So the trick is to grab the ideas from the best and the brightest and put them into practice. That is what Chorus America has really given me and the LA Master Chorale over the years.

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