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LA Master Chorale’s Grant Gershon recalls the Alhambra of his youth

  • Grant Gershon backstage at the LA Master Chorale. Photo by Tao Ruspoli and Marie Noorbergen. All photos courtesy of LA Master Chorale.

  • Gershon leads a High School Choir Festival rehearsal. Photo by Frances Chee.

  • Photo by Tao Ruspoli and Marie Noorbergen.

  • Gershon conducts at Big Sing California in 2017. Photo by Jamie Pham.

Location

Alhambra , CA United States

He is a seminal figure in American classical music and from his positions as Kiki & David Gindler artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and resident conductor of the LA Opera, he has a huge impact on the vocal tradition in American music.

He is also, without question, one of the most prominent people to have grown up in Alhambra and graduated from Alhambra High School.

His name is Grant Gershon and he talked recently about his childhood in Alhambra, and the value of his education—with an emphasis on music and drama— in the city’s schools and his hopes for music and arts programs in the financially challenged positions that some communities currently face.

Gershon, who these days mostly conducts dynamic choirs at Walt Disney Concert Hall and the Hollywood Bowl and the LA Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, grew up in the southwest part of Alhambra in what he calls “the shadow of Cal State Los Angeles.” He went to Fremont Elementary and recalled his hometown fondly as “a great place to grow up” with its “rainbow coalition of families.”

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The youngest of three children, he was raised in a musical household. His mother taught piano and had upwards of 20 students a week in their home. His father was a branch manager in the Social Security Administration. When he started studying music, Gershon’s mother was wise enough to avoid trying to teach him. At the age of five, he started studying piano with his mother’s music teacher at her studio in San Marino.

Gershon said he has followed his mother’s example with his children. He’s married to the soprano Elissa Johnston and sometimes accompanies her in recital. His daughter attends USC and his son is a junior in public high school.

He talks about his time in Alhambra in a way that sounds idyllic.

“We spent a lot of time in the summers at the parks,” Gershon said. “I just think, looking back on it, Alhambra is pretty blessed to have the whole collection of really good parks.”

Granada Park was the closest park to his home and he fondly recalled the “great summer programs” put on by the parks and recreation department. He and his older brother were avid bike riders. “It was nothing to us,” he said, “to ride up to the Rose Bowl and a couple of times up Angeles Crest Hig hway.” He laughs at the thought of doing that now.

He graduated from Alhambra in 1977 and still retains a youthful face and an enthusiastic and engaging manner. He talked over coffee at a cafe near his home in Northeast Los Angeles and it was his second interview of the morning. If he was weary from the exercise, he never showed it.

His most memorable teacher in Alhambra, he said, was not a music teacher or a high school instructor. Mr. Joe Fields, his eighth grade science teacher at Fremont, gets the nod.

Fields, he said, “had a huge personality, great sense of humor and was always enthusiastic.”

He recalled two sayings that Fields had on his chalk board. “The only thing you have to do in life is accept the consequences of your actions.” And, Gershon said, “he would go on about that in great detail.” Below that saying was another one in parentheses that read “inaction is an action.” So, Gershon noted that Fields was teaching personal responsibility and engagement more than 40 years ago.

Gershon entered Alhambra High in the days before Prop.13 took a large bite from public school funding.

“I started at Alhambra High in ’73,” he said. “And it had a really strong music program. There were multiple choirs. There was a full symphony orchestra as well as symphonic band and marching band. The choir program contained a Freshman Men’s Ensemble and a Freshman Women’s Ensemble. So there was this whole, like, tiering structure.”

Going into high school, Gershon fell for choral music, literally.

A gifted pianist, he was acting as an accompanist for the Freshman’s Men Ensemble but during a gymnastics class, he fell while trying to make the jump to a high bar and broke his arm. So piano was out but since he was already enrolled with the choral group, he had to
stay and he had to sing, which he said, “he really hadn’t done up to that point.”

“But it was really a lot of fun, singing in the choir.…It was a complete revelation that you could have that kind of musical experience with a bunch of your friends and mutual music geeks.”

A camp experience he had during the summer after his freshman year, “sealed his deal with music,” he said.

“My parents sent me off to the Idyllwild music camp for a couple of weeks. It was a chorus program with kids from all over California. And we spent much of the two weeks rehearsing the Mozart Requiem. That completely blew my mind and changed my life. I just knew after that, that I had to have a life in music. Somehow, I didn’t know what it would be yet and it took me a while to figure it out, but it was so much fun and it was such an amazing experience.”

Asked what specifically attracted him to singing, Gershon said that it was “less about the actual music, whether it was classical, like the Mozart Requiem or a pop song or whatever, but it was more about the physical aspect of singing. Especially at that age. There’s just like this amazing exuberance that starts to happen in an ensemble that’s feeling good about itself. I think there was a lot of pride in the music program at Alhambra High. So a lot if it was just that aspect of just enjoying the pure sensation of singing, of blending your voice together with all these kids.”

Many of his close friends, “his tribe,” he called them, were engaged in music programs at Alhambra, including Steve Padilla, now a senior editor at the Los Angeles Times, who comes back to Alhambra from time to time to share his love of music with elementary school kids.
Padilla was in the drama program with Gershon and also played the French horn and was the drum major for the school’s marching band during his senior year.

Gershon also noted that many in his circle during his junior and senior years might not have graduated had it not been for the music and drama programs. “They were kids who were marginalized, and in today’s terms, at risk,” Gershon said. “And the music and drama programs really gave them the focus and motivation to keep everything else together.”

He recalled Lanny Watkins, then the Alhambra High School drama teacher, as a “huge influence.” Watkins “had a fantastically strong theater program,” Gershon said, and “was funny with great stories to tell.” “But he also instilled a terrific sense of discipline and method to rehearsals. If you got into his cast, it was a huge deal and you had to be hyper-prepared with your material.”

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It is interesting that Gershon would recall Watkins and the discipline of rehearsal
because he himself is known as running excellent rehearsals without being overbearing.

Did that and the physicality of conducting come from Alhambra? Maybe so. He couldn’t say but he did note that being connected to theater and “having that experience was really helpful for music and specifically for conducting.”

How so, one wonders?

“I suppose physicality and using your body expressively. It’s funny, because I hadn’t ever really connected that together, but of course that was part of the theater experience and it would certainly carry over to music.”

He says that he sometimes marvels that he graduated at all because he had such little interest in his academic courses. “The joy of school,’ he says, “was in music and drama.”

After graduating from Alhambra, Gershon went to what is now Chapman University in Orange where he attempted a double major in piano and voice. He transferred to the USC Thornton School of Music where he graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1985. He’s now on the Board of Councilors for the Thornton School of Music and is also a member of the Chorus America Board of Directors.

His professional career includes guest conductor stints with some of the world’s great orchestras and opera companies, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was assistant conductor for a time under Esa-Pekka Salonen; the National Symphony Orchestra, the Houston Grand Opera, the Santa Fe Opera, St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, among others. He has led performances at many of the world’s most prestigious festivals and, also, served as pianist for many artists on recordings and in recital, including Kiri Te Kanawa and Audra McDonald.

He says that he and his colleagues at the Master Chorale have been thinking about youth education “a lot these days and are very involved in a lot of high school choral programs.”

“We have workshops where a quartet—a soprano, alto, tenor and bass—from the chorale will go into the schools and work with the students and we basically just ask the choral directors ‘what do you need from us?’ And that could mean a master class or work on a specific repertoire or helping tenors find the high notes and help the sopranos to find the blend sound or whatever.”

He believes the tide has turned a bit over the last three or four years and that support for music is coming back. “This year, our High School Choir Festival hosted 33 different high schools from around California. We couldn’t have mustered those numbers 10 or 15 years ago,” he said. Choirs from Mark Keppel and San Gabriel High School were among the 33 schools represented this year.

“I really feel that the major arts organizations need to be more and more proactive in filling
the gaps in music and arts programs,” he added.
“I look at the YOLA program at the L.A. Phil.—the Youth Orchestra L.A.—as a really strong example of what we should be doing in the choral field as well.”

The conversation is coming to a close and Gershon again emphasizes the importance of
music and art for keeping kids engaged in school.

“We know that the power of music, the discipline of creating an ensemble, just everything that goes into that, it reaps such enormous lifetime benefits for the students and for society and for all of us.”

And for Grant Gershon, the lifetime benefits of music and creativity began in a city called Alhambra.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale will present five Christmas choral concerts in Walt Disney Concert Hall from Dec. 2-17 with Grant Gershon conducting. More information at lamasterchorale.org.

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