Yesterday the death of 86-year-old choral conductor, Paul Salamunovich, was announced by his son and the tributes are pouring in. The Los Angeles Times called him “Grammy-nominated … who helped shape the Los Angeles Master Chorale into one of the world’s finest choirs.” Click here to read the extensive obituary by Times writer Randy Lewis in the. I also read articles on him on Wikipedia and the American Choral Directors Association website and was most interested to learn that his earliest choral experiences were singing Gregorian chant in elementary school. From Wikipedia, “When a young priest arrived at the parish and started a boy’s choir, Salamunovich joined and, as he says, “I was hooked.” This choir sang exclusively in Gregorian chant, and “all we did was sing funerals,” he said. This early foundation in Gregorian chant, he added, “influenced the music I specialize in, and the techniques I use.”
Salamunovich’s death was even reported in The Hollywood Reporter where they credited him with “creating and shaping the sound of choral music in America through recordings, live performances, college and university clinics and film scores.” He conducted choral music for such films as “The Godfather,” “Flatliners,” “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” “Air Force One,” “Peter Pan,” “Angels and Demons,” and the NBC drama, “ER.” As a young man, he sang on the soundtracks of “Judgment at Nuremberg (1961),” “How the West was Won (1962)” and “The Trouble with Angels (1966).”
I was also interested to learn about how he got his first church job — at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church — and it turned out to be his last church job as well, since he had an unprecedented 60 year tenure there (1949-2009). It was Roger Wagner — another giant in the choral world — who asked Paul to take the job as choir director there. But according to Wikipedia, “A more accurate retelling of the story is that Wagner told the pastor that Salamunovich had experience conducting and playing the organ, neither of which was true! When Salamunovich tried to decline, Wagner insisted so that he could be free to pursue other opportunities. Reluctantly, Salamunovich took the post and over the next sixty years, led the choir in the their regular services as well as in a number of high-profile performances, including multiple appearances at the American Choral Directors Association (ACDA) Biennial National Conventions. Most notably, the St. Charles Choir has sung for Pope John Paul II in private audience at the Vatican, for the official Mass of Greeting with the Pope presiding in St. Vibiana’s Cathedral in Los Angeles and in St. Peter’s Square on the Feasts of St.’s Peter and Paul with the Pope presiding in high Mass. They hold the distinction of being the only American choir to be honored with this invitation.”
But Salamunovich had a Hawaii connection also — After graduating from high school, he enlisted in the Navy and spent a year here in Pearl Harbor. In 1997, we in the local chapter of the American Guild of Organists invited him to the regional convention here. Not only did he say ‘yes,’ he asked whether he could bring his church choir to perform! (And they paid their own way!) And I remember that when asked about his choral conducting experiences, he said that conducting his church choir made him the most proud, even though he was probably more well-known as the conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.
And so, the more than 60+ member St. Charles Borromeo Choir performed a concert on July 17th, 1997 at Kamehameha Schools Bishop Memorial Chapel. I remember hearing the incredible blend of that large choir, and how Paul made them sound like a gorgeous chamber choir. They sang Gregorian chant and works by Tomas Luis da Victoria, Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, Paul Tschesnokoff, Flor Peeters, Wilbur Chenowith, John Rutter, Philip Bliss, Howard Hanson, Franz Biebl (yes! the famous Ave Maria), and Gilbert Martin. It was an incredibly beautiful program and we were so fortunate to be able to hear them.
According to his son, Salamunovich died peacefully, listening to the recording of “In paradisum” by Maurice Duruflé.