Paul Salamunovich KCSG (June 7, 1927 â€" April 3, 2014) was a Grammy-nominated American choral conductor and educator.

He was the Music Director Emeritus of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, after having served as Music Director from 1991 to 2001. He served as Director of Music at St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood, California, for 60 years between 1949 and 2009. In addition, he held academic positions at a number of Southern California universities.

He was acknowledged as an expert in Gregorian chant and has long been recognized for his contributions in the field of sacred music, most notably receiving a Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice, the highest laity award from the papacy in 2013 and a Papal knighthood in the Order of St. Gregory the Great from Pope Paul VI in 1969. He was also a master clinician, having been invited to conduct just under 1000 festivals and workshops around the world including an unprecedented four consecutive ACDA national conventionsâ€"all with different groups.


Paul Salamunovich

Personal history

The youngest of five sons born to immigrant parents from what is now Croatia, he was born in Redondo Beach, California where he attended St. James Elementary School. When a young priest named Father Louis Buechner 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."

In 1940, at the age of 13, Salamunovich and his family moved to Hollywood, California, where they joined a new church and parochial school at Blessed Sacrament whose men's and boy's choirs director were led by Richard Keys Biggs, the organ teacher of famed choral director Roger Wagner. Despite starting in the boys choir three years older than was typical, Salamunovich impressed Biggs with his tone and was allowed to join. He remained in the choir even when he moved to a public high school the following year. At age 14, he began singing with Wagner.

He attended Hollywood High School where, among other things, he met the former Dorothy Hilton, and they became high school sweethearts. (They later married on May 20, 1950, and they have had five children.) After graduating high school in 1945, he enlisted in the United States Navy and spent a year in Pearl Harbor replacing sailors who were sent home after World War II.

Singing and conducting career

After completing his Naval enlistment, Salamunovich returned to Southern California at the age of 19. Hearing of his return, Roger Wagner contacted Salamunovich and asked him to join his newly formed Los Angeles Concert Youth Chorusâ€"whose other members included a 13-year old Marilyn Horne and 14-year old Marni Nixon; this choir later evolved into the Roger Wagner Chorale in 1948. Wagner eventually suggested that Salamunovich study music in college. This led to the beginning of his professional career in music. Salamunovich was regularly hired as a professional singer on both live performances and in recordings for such conductors and composers as Arturo Toscanini, Alfred Wallenstein, Igor Stravinsky and others, singing on all styles of popular and classical music. He sang the tenor solo on César Franck's Panis Angelicas on The Wagner Chorale's album, "The House of The Lord". He was one of the quartet of jazz great, Stan Kenton's vocal group, "The Modern Men" who sang on Kenton's album, "Kenton With Voices" in 1957. He was a "ghost singer" along with Horne, Nixon and somewhat regular group of contract singers on multiple film soundtrack recordings spanning the time between 1946 and 1964 when his conducting duties had intensified to the point he no longer had the time for studio singing. He eventually began contracting and conducting choral segments in films for the next 40 years.

When Wagner's commitments to his own chorale began to take more of his time, he decided to install Salamunovich as choir director at St. Charles Borromeo church in North Hollywood in 1949. 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. The St. Charles Choir has performed on the soundtracks of the motion pictures, "Flatliners", "Grand Canyon" and "True Confessions" on which he also coached Robert De Niro on the sung responses of the Latin Mass. They have also performed on television including The NBC Doc Severinson Christmas Special. His St. Charles Boys Choir ghosted as the Disneyland Boys Choir on the original "It's A Small World" album. They also performed on television in the Dinah Shore Chevy Special, The Lucy Show, the Bette Davis film, "Dead Ringer" and on the Soundtrack of "The Godfather". Former boys choir members include Admiral Michael Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former UCLA football coach, Terry Donahue. He finally retired from his post at St. Charles in June 2009.

He served as Assistant Conductor of the Roger Wagner Chorale from 1953 to 1977. When Wagner formed the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Salamunovich also became Assistant Conductor of the Master Chorale. In this capacity, he led the majority of the Master Chorale rehearsals with Wagner stepping do conduct the performances and some of the dress rehearsals. He also prepared choirs for numerous performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, including those conducted by Igor Stravinsky, Bruno Walter, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Zubin Mehta, Carlo Maria Giulini, Valeri Gergiev and Simon Rattle, among many others.

When the Board of Directors of the Master Chorale and Wagner parted ways in 1986, Wagner recommended Salamunovich to replace him; however, the board decided to ignore Wagner and instead hired Scottish conductor John Currie as Music Director. Currie held the position until the end of the 1991 season; the Master Chorale's board then named Salamunovich as Music Director in January 1991 effective the Fall of that year. "I'm sort of like the prodigal son, come back," Salamunovich said. "My choral heritage is this group."

Once he took over the Master Chorale, Salamunovich set out to better the signature sound that existed for many years before Currie's tenure. As many insiders already knew, Salamunovich was actually the one who was more responsible for that tone, having led the Chorale in the vast majority of their rehearsals as assistant conductor until his departure in 1977, with Wagner stepping in to conduct the performances and some dress rehearsals. "I expect to take back your tone about 25 years," Salamunovich told his singers at his first rehearsal as Music Director. "The choir has been top-heavy, very top-heavy. I want to get back to a pyramid blend, to the sound of an over-tone choir." In later interviews with the Los Angeles Times, his approach was described as follows:

The smooth line of Gregorian chant is the goal, Salamunovich says. So is "looseness": releasing the muscles as if "throwing up." Articulation and audience comprehension too are ongoing themes. Not just diction but the quality of sound should convey meaning, the conductor maintains. "The foundation is built on the male voices. . . . I don't allow the sopranos to override them. I take the growl out of the basses and the ping out of the tenors. It's a kinder, gentler tone that says 'I love you.' "

He replaced Currie's bright, operatic sound with a kinder and gentler sonority, mellow and blended "with the energy â€" or, should I say, foundation of the sound â€" coming from the lower voices."

His sound, though initially influenced by Wagner's is more nimble and less heavy without becoming lyrical unless the style of the piece requires it. Salamunovich describes it as "Fervently with passion." The uniquely recognizable sound has become known as the "Salamunovich Sound" and is distinct in that he gets the same recognizable tone and phrasing from every group he conducts even though each group contains a different set of voices at differing levels of expertise. As Wagner once said, "Paul, you make them sing the way you sang." Strangely, a myth persists in the public that Wagner tutored Salamunovich in some way and Wagner himself perpetuated that myth in the book, "The Voice of The Chorale" in which he claimed to have "taught that man (Salamunovich) practically everything I could teach anybody". The book was published in 1993 after Salamunovich had been conductor of the Master Chorale for some three seasons to great acclaim in bringing the group into to an artistic renaissance and back from the brink of the tremendous financial challenges they were previously facing before his arrival. A far more accurate accounting of the situation is that Wagner "utilized" Salamunovich as a frequent replacement so Wagner could be free to do other things starting with Salamunovich's appointment to St. Charles Borromeo in North Hollywood, his first conducting position in 1949. Wagner wished to abandon the post as it didn't pay as well as other opportunities he was being offered at other churches and needed to find a replacement in order to make his exit. As the actual story goes, Wagner took Salamunovich to meet Pastor Monsignor Harry C. Meade and convinced him that Salamunovich could not only conduct but could play the organ, neither of which was true at the time. Upon selling the pastor on the idea of the replacement, Wagner then gave Salamunovich the only conducting lesson he ever received from him and showed him the conducting chironomy for the meters of the 2, 3 and 4/4 time signatures and wished him well. No other pedagogic relationship existed between the two though Salamunovich claimed Wager as a mentor largely due to the opportunities Wagner gave Salamunovich to fill in for him as Salamunovich would not have otherwise sought a career in conducting left strictly to his own devices. This was a distinction he shared with his contemporary and friend, the great Robert Shaw who also didn't initially seek a career in conducting. Yet both men found themselves continually asked to do so until they were eventually doing it full-time.

Salamunovich led the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Sinfonia Orchestra for ten years, during which time he covered a broad range of repertoire from Renaissance pieces by 16th-century composer Tomas Luis de Vittoria to modern works, most notably those written by Morten Lauridsen, the Master Chorale's Composer-in-Residence from 1994 through 2001. "There's not a note I've written over these years in which I didn't have Paul and the unique sound he achieves with the Master Chorale in mind," Lauridsen once said. "The way phrases are put together and melody is createdâ€"I always write for them." The relationship between conductor and composer resulted in pieces such as O Magnum Mysterium, Lux Aeterna, andâ€"written for Salamunovich's 70th birthday â€" Ave Maria. Salamunovich is also known for his interpretations of the 20th-century French composer Maurice Duruflé whose compositions for orchestra and chorus are based upon chant motifs. Salamunovich prepared the St. Charles Choir for a performance of Durufle's Requiem with the composer conducting in 1967. It was their only meeting and with Salamunovich speaking no French and Duruflé speaking no English, their communication was left almost entirely to the music. Years later, one of Salamunovich's students toured the composer's home in Paris which is curated by the Duruflé Society and found a picture of Salamunovich and Duruflé on the wall some 40 years later commemorating their brief albeit memorable collaboration.

Upon retiring as Music Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in 2001, he was immediately named Music Director Emeritus, a title he held until his death. Salamunovich returned to the Chorale as guest conductor in 2005 making his debut in the Disney Hall in a sold out concert. He was one of the most in-demand clinicians having conducted almost 1000 workshops and festivals throughout the United States, Canada, the Bahamas, South America, Europe, Australia and the Far East. He led the St. Petersburg Philharmonic and the Master Chorale of the United States as part of the annual Festival of Sacred Music at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome in November 2003. In 2012, he was an inaugural inductee to the Loyola Marymount University Faculty Hall of Fame. Salamunovich was stricken with the West Nile virus in September 2013. After a seven month battle to recover from the illness, he died from multiple complications on April 3, 2014 in Sherman Oaks, California. His rosary was held at St. Charles Borromeo on May 2, 2014 and his funeral, the next day at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood and was attended by over a thousand people. As was the custom with members of the St. Charles Choir who died, the choir came out of the choir loft and sat downstairs near the casket as family. The entire congregation was given music and singers from all the various choirs he conducted, sang the Mass which was presided over by some 14 priests which included Cardinal Roger Mahoney. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Choral Legacy

In listening to the groups that Salamunovich has led full-time at the professional, collegiate and church levels as well as his numerous guest conducting positions around the world, it is noteworthy he managed to get his signature sound and interpretation no matter what level of ability the singers possessed. He also managed to accomplish this in a remarkably short amount of rehearsal time. His rehearsals were performances in themselves in which his analogies and "word pictures" turned subjective concepts into definable sounds that could immediately be grasped by the singers he conducted. Given his years conducting church choirs while having to play the organ, Salamunovich developed the use of his facial expressions almost like another set of hands to communicate the tone and vocal "shape" he wanted from the choir. Salamunovich was noted for saying that singing was like acting and the facial expressions added a much more dramatic extension to the sounds he was able to bring forth. When conducting only, the use of BOTH hands and face allowed him a much more intimate and precise communication with the choir and orchestra. His extremely successful international career as a choral clinician is a testament to his prodigious abilities as a teacher of the choral arts. An especially remarkable footnote to Salamunovich's entire career is he never set out to be a conductor and has never asked for an appointment in his life. Every single post or engagement he's ever accepted was offered to him. What is also noteworthy is his first post as a church choir conductor, is typically an entry-level post. Yet Salamunovich kept that first position his entire career while ascending up the ranks to the pinnacle of preeminent, American, choral conductors. He would regularly schedule his professional conducting duties on the international and national levels around his church duties so that he could be in the choir loft at St. Charles every Sunday (excluding summers) with rare exceptions. His students populate choral podiums around the world many of whom regularly site his stories and analogies to their own singers. After being named Chairman of The Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen sent Salamunovich a signed photo telling him that his experiences as a boy choir member under Salamunovich factored heavily into all the success that followed in his career. Although Salamunovich was never able to use a computer, a Facebook page dedicated to him by former students numbers over one thousand members who regularly post stories, photos, recordings and videos.

Academic positions

  • Mount St. Mary's College: music faculty for 18 years
  • Loyola Marymount University: music faculty (1964â€"1990), Director of Choral Activities, named Professor Emeritus in 1993, inaugural inductee to the Loyola Marymount Faculty Hall of Fame in 2012.
  • USC Thornton School of Music: Adjunct Professor of Choral Music, Director of the USC Thornton Chamber Choir (2007â€"2008)

He also held two honorary doctorates from Loyola Marymount University and the University of St. Thomas (Minnesota).

In addition, he taught 831 clinics and workshops throughout the U.S., Canada, South America, the Bahamas, Europe, Australia, and the Far East.

Papal audiences

In addition to his 2003 appearances at the Vatican, Salamunovich led the St. Charles Borromeo choir in three other performances for Pope John Paul II:

  • In 1988, they sang at the Mass for the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul with Pope John Paul II presiding in St. Peter's Square in Rome. They are the only American choir ever invited to sing at this occasion.
  • In 1987, they performed at the Cathedral of Saint Vibiana for the official welcome of the Pontiff to the City of Los Angeles
  • In 1985, they performed for the Pope in a private audience in Clementine Hall of the Vatican Palace.


After becoming ill with the West Nile virus in September, 2013, Paul Salamunovich died at the age of 86 on April 3, 2014 at a hospital in Sherman Oaks, California, of complications of the disease. His rosary was held at St. Charles Borromeo on May 2, 2014. His funeral was held the next day at Blessed Sacrament Church in Hollywood as St. Charles was deemed too small to house the roughly 1500 people who attended. As was the custom with members of the St. Charles Choir who died, the choir came out of the choir loft and sat downstairs near the casket as family. The entire congregation was given music and singers from all the various choirs he conducted, sang the Mass which was presided over by some 14 priests which included Cardinal Roger Mahoney. Pallbearers included Morten Lauridsen. He is buried at Holy Cross Cemetery.

Recordings and DVDs

Paul Salamunovich

Los Angeles Master Chorale releases

  • Lux Aeterna by Morten Lauridsen (also featuring other Lauridsen works: Chansons des Roses, Ave Maria, Mid-Winter Songs, and O Magnum Mysterium) (RCM) Grammy Nomination for Best Choral Performance, 1998.
  • Dominic Argento's Te Deum and Missa "Cum Jubilo" by Maurice Duruflé (with Rodney Gilfry as baritone soloist and Frederick Swann on organ (RCM))
  • Christmas, a collection of songs (RCM)

Los Angeles Philharmonic releases

  • Claude Debussy, Trois nocturnes and La Damoiselle Elué, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (Sony Classics)
  • Gustav Mahler, Symphony No. 3, Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting (Sony Classics)

Hollywood Bowl Orchestra releases

  • Rodgers & Hammerstein, The King & I, John Mauceri conducting (Phillips Classics)
  • Schoenberg/Ravel, Earth Day, John Mauceri conducting (Phillips Classics)
  • Hollywood Nightmares (various composers), John Mauceri conducting (Phillips Classics)


  • "Choral Perspectives: Paul Salamunovich, Chant and Beyond" (2007), a documentary released by Hal Leonard Publishing

Motion picture and TV work

Paul Salamunovich

Salamunovich was responsible for choral music for over 100 film and TV productions including "The Godfather" "Angels and Demons" First Knight, Air Force One, A.I., XXX, Peter Pan, Flatliners, ER, The Sum of All Fears, and Cirque du Soleil's Journey of Man. He coached Robert De Niro in Latin for the role of a priest in True Confessions in addition to preparing the choir for that movie.

His St. Charles Borromeo choir appeared with Henry Mancini and Doc Severinson in the NBC Christmas Eve Special, while the boy choir has been featured on television on "The Lucy Show" and with Dinah Shore in the "Chevy Show." His St. Charles Boy's Choir appeared as the Disneyland Boys Choir on the original Disney album, "It's A Small World".

Awards and recognition

  • Papal knighthood Knight Commander In The Order of St. Gregory the Great 1969
  • "Distinguished Artist Award" from the Music Center of Los Angeles County (1995)
  • "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the American Choral Directors Association (2000)
  • Grammy nomination for recording of Lux Aeterna and other choral works by Morten Lauridsen 1997
  • "Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice" The highest Papal award given to laity. 2013


Paul Salamunovich

External links

  • Paul Salamunovich at the Internet Movie Database
  • Faculty Profile at USC Thornton School of Music website
  • Bio on the Los Angeles Master Chorale website
  • 21st Century Chorister website: Salamunovich Speaks â€" An interview with Paul Salamunovich
  • Salamunovich's Army Facebook Fanpage

Paul Salamunovich

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