There's a smile that seems impossible to wipe from Grant Gershon's face.
Last week, seated to the right and a few feet below L.A. Opera General Director Plácido Domingo, Gershon, the recently appointed chorus master, instinctively matched fist pumps and head bobs with the legend, who was conducting a chorus rehearsal for the upcoming season opener, a one-shot performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem.
Domingo and Gershon exchanged verbal notes as the singers moved through the first bars of the piece. While it was clear both men were in artistic agreement, their faces expressed a sharp difference in demeanor.
Domingo was contemplative and held a serene stare. Gershon, eyes wide and chin tilted to the ceiling, was animated as a street mime.
"You have a great conductor. I don't want to interfere," said Domingo before the rehearsal. Gershon, grinning, made a gesture with open hands that seemed to say, "Be my guest."
"It will be such a joy working with Plácido as he conducts this piece," Gershon said by phone a few days earlier. "As a soloist and conductor he knows Verdi's style better than anyone else. I'm looking forward to this."
Gershon isn't simply looking forward to Requiem, which will be performed Sunday, Sept. 9, and to Beethoven's Fidelio, which opens Sept. 8, but to the coming season with the company he has followed closely since its inception.
The Alhambra native, who received a bachelor of music degree in piano performance from USC, mourned several fledgling local opera companies that quickly folded. Finally, L.A. Opera beat the trend with two promising seasons. Before the start of the company's third year in 1988, Gershon was hired as its assistant conductor and principal pianist. He left in 1994, joined the Los Angeles Philharmonic and in 2001 become music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a position he still holds.
While Gershon said he is looking forward to both pieces, Requiem has a special place in his heart - it was the first score he ever purchased, while in high school, one he dog-eared reading countless times when lectures grew dull.
"It's one of my desert island pieces," said Gershon, who resides in Echo Park. "I love that this is a piece where the chorus is the star. The soloists may disagree, and that's fine, but the chorus is front and center through much of it. And it's got everything, from the raging to the heavens, to the crying out of all humanity, to very intimate and personal prayers."
Requiem, first performed in 1874, began six years earlier as part of a funeral mass honoring Italian composer Gioachino Rossini. Verdi's plan for several of the era's top composers to collaborate on the mass never fully materialized, so Verdi later used some of what he had written for Rossini to create a requiem for writer Alessandro Manzoni.
Its complexities are vocally challenging, which worried some chorus members unfamiliar with Gershon.
Michael Geiger helped allay those fears. Also a member of the Master Chorale, Geiger had watched as the company gained an international reputation through recordings and tours, as well as becoming a Downtown Los Angeles jewel by attracting audiences to the tune of more than $1 million in ticket sales three of the last four years - a virtually unreachable total in the choral world.
"Some felt trepidation, but I told them that Grant is a remarkable leader," Geiger explained. "There is this belief that you have to browbeat singers to get what you want, but Grant doesn't work that way. He respects each of us, and he treats us as musicians, because that's what we are.
"Grant is able to take a room filled with soloists, which is what this chorus is, and make them fit together. The Verdi Requiem can only reach its full potential for dramatic effect with an opera chorus, and Grant has the qualities to help make that happen."
Gershon said rehearsals are more intense with L.A. Opera because the music "must be received into what I call the lizard brain. It must become second nature, whereas the Master Chorale is tackling more music but not having to memorize it."
Still, the key for both companies, he said, is making sure everyone is on the right page - musically and emotionally.
"My predecessor achieved great things, but I'm excited about taking it to the next level," he said, referring to William Vendice. "It won't be overnight, but in the next two or three seasons the sound and overall texture will evolve. I want audiences to hear Verdi like they were sitting in La Scala."
As the rehearsal continued, Gershon continually scanned the room, his mouth making perfect circles as he urged the chorus to follow through on Domingo's request for urgency.
Domingo, with a wave, stopped the music.
"That was beautiful," he said. He turned to his right and repeated, "Beautiful."
Gershon's never-ceasing smile seemed to grow another inch on each side as he nodded in agreement.
Requiem is at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Sept. 9. Fidelio runs Sept. 8-Oct. 6, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or losangelesopera.com.
The Downtown Artists Grants Exhibition runs through Sept. 4 at Dangerous Curve, 1020 E. Fourth Place, (213) 617-8483 or dangerouscurve.org.
page 19, 9/3/2007
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