by Lynn Mills

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Sherman Oaks Sun December 22-28, 2006 VOL. 3 NO. 47

A musical family legacy continues

Jeannine Wagner-Gallardo conducts the holiday chorale at St. Francis de Sales

BY LYNN MILLS

At a 10 a.m. mass on an Advent Sunday at St. Francis de Sales church in Sherman Oaks, the 40-strong choir in the rear loft blends seamlessly into “Sanctus,” a majestic, haunting Gregorian chant (“Sanctus dominus deus sabaoth…hosanna in excelsis”).

All eyes are on the priest at the altar, but a few children steal a glance back to the choir loft, where the conductor who prepares the singers weekly now conducts them with subtle arm movements in front of the congregation.

What they probably don’t know is that she’s Jeannine Wagner-Gallardo, conductor of the legendary Roger Wagner Chorale (a twenty member professional choral group founded by her father, Roger Wagner, in 1947), and her own choral group, the Wagner Ensemble.

Those parishioners who do know Wagner-Gallardo may not be aware that the Chorale recently sang on two cuts of Christina Aguilera’s current bestselling CD, “Back to Basics.” Or that in the 60s (as she’ll tell you with a playful grin) she sang with the Roger Wagner Chorale when they backed up Pink Floyd at the legendary Fillmore in San Francisco. The audience of hardcore rock and rollers demanded an encore from the Chorale.

“We did the ‘Ave Maria Victoria’ — and everybody loved it!” laughs Wagner-Gallardo.

While the term “chorale” refers to a specific kind of hymn singing, choral music does include secular along with the sacred, and her career has been surprisingly eclectic.

“You couldn’t talk about choral music without having sacred music included in the discussion,” she says.

Google her name and a variety of projects surface — from “Quilting an American Christmas” (her first cd conducting the Roger Wagner Chorale) to “City of Evil” by heavy metal band Avenged Sevenfold (she supplied boy sopranos for one cut). Wagner-
Gallardo has both sung and conducted choirs for some sixty television and film scores (including many for John Williams). She even worked in front of the camera in the feature films “Spyhard” and “Hook.”

While Wagner-Gallardo has toured all over the world as a soloist, chorister, and conductor with the Roger Wagner Chorale (including a stint as chorus master and assistant conductor of “Carmen” for the Sakai City Opera), she has also spent a decade and a half conducting the St. Francis de Sales adult and children’s choirs.

“I have to tell you the best acoustics are here,” she says. “I feel so lucky to have the choir I do here and the support of the pastor, and to have the acoustics to work with.” Of the children’s choir, she says, “They are always refreshing, always challenging. To see such quick growth is so inspiring.”

Wagner-Gallardo’s French-born father, Roger Wagner, got his start conducting church choirs and singing with the MGM chorus. He went on to cut 87 records in his lifetime. “He was larger than life,” Wagner says of her father. His tastes were varied — ranging from the B Minor Mass of Bach to Stephen Foster and Appalachian folk songs. Although the Roger Wagner Chorale had regular performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and worked with great composers such as Stravinksy, they weren’t above backing up the likes of the British rock group Procol Harum at the Hollywood Bowl in the late 60s.

As a child growing up in Hollywood, Wagner-Gallardo remembers some of the impressive musicians coming to the family’s home in Hollywood. Her father’s madrigal group, which was the start for the Roger Wagner Chorale, included a number of people who would reach their own fame, including Marni Nixon and Marilyn Horne.

“My father used to tell me that Stravinsky came to the door one day, but I don’t remember that,” she says.

The oldest of three children, Wagner-Gallardo was the one to follow in her father’s footsteps. As a toddler, she watched her father composing at the piano, and became so intrigued she started lessons at 3 1/2 years old. “And then they discovered I had perfect pitch and so the path was very clear,” she says.

At that time, every city had choral groups and she started singing in the Los Angeles City Children’s Choir. Wagner- Gallardo also sang in the church choirs her father conducted at St. Joseph’s church downtown and St. Paul the Apostle in Westwood, and at the age of 25 she joined the Roger Wagner Chorale as a mezzo-soprano.

Wagner-Gallardo started conducting when she was a student at Marymount College, where her father was professor of music. “I had to take over for him when he would have to be away for some reason,” she recalls.

“[He’d say] ‘Take it, Jeannine. Jeannine can do it.’” From there she became the assistant conductor for the Los Angeles Master Chorale (also founded by her father) for their performances with the L.A. Philharmonic, in charge of rehearsing the group when her father was on tour.

“I would prepare the group and be responsible for them to be ready for the conductor to work with when he’d come in,” she says. Conductors at that time included Zubin Mehta and Eugene Ormandy, among other luminaries.

Despite her father’s encouragement, she says she found being Roger Wagner’s daughter was sometimes difficult. “I felt I really had to be the best. If I was going to be a singer in his group, I couldn’t have it said about me that I was chosen because of favoritism, so I had to prove I was the best one.”

In 1992, she took over the Roger Wagner Chorale, a group of twenty singers, pianist, and bass player, continuing her father’s tradition.

“I hope I have that same concept of sound and same concept of musicality,” explains Wagner-Gallardo. “I’m a different person, so I can’t be exactly the same, [but] my brother, when he first heard me conduct after my father had died, said he cried because he thought he would never hear that sound again.”

“[My father] was really impassioned about his music making. His music always had affect,” says Wagner-Gallardo. “I hope if there are two things that I got from his tutelage, one was the wonderful sense of line and the cohesive sound and the second thing is the understanding of the words, the emotional meaning of the music,” she continues.

“Sometimes I hear performances that are really wonderful in executing what’s on the page, but they don’t get me emotionally, and I miss that. I always want my performances to have that.”

The Wagner Ensemble (which she founded in 1993) is a community-based group of 28 singers who perform in the Los Angeles area. Together with the St. Francis de Sales choir and a 16- piece orchestra, they gave a moving performance of the Fauré Requiem to a full house at the church for a special evening performance on All Soul’s Day.

Wagner-Gallardo says that it was the first time she had conducted the work since her father’s death in 1992. “This one was one of my favorites, and one of my dad’s favorites. It was one that was played at his funeral, so it was a long time before I could listen to it again. So it had a lot of emotional meaning for me.”

Aside from the music business, Wagner-Gallardo taught music at Cal Arts for fi ve years and was a junior high teacher for about 10 years, teaching a wide variety of subjects, including English, German, geography, math, and, of course, the overflow music classes. She’s a strong believer in music education and says she is sorry to see music programs (as well as art and sports) cut in public schools.

“It’s not about making them musicians when they grow up. It’s about giving them something they can do for the rest of their lives that gives them joy, and feeling empowered to do that. The people in my ensemble, a few are professionals, but most of them are there just because they love to do it. And the church choir, they’re there because they love to do it.”

One of her pet peeves is people who say they can’t sing. “I say, ‘No that’s not true. Everybody can sing.’” She says all it takes is practice. “Not everybody can be an opera star, not everybody can have the lead in a Broadway musical, but everybody can sing.”

“They don’t have that notion about playing tennis -- ‘Oh I can’t play tennis.’ Well, you can if you take lessons and if you learn how to do it. Somehow singing… it’s like this mysterious thing. It’s a very personal, very individualized, emotional thing to sing. And I think no one should deprive themselves of it.”

The St. Francis de Sales Children’s Choir will be featured at the Family Christmas Mass at 3 pm on Christmas Eve; the St. Francis de Sales adult choir performs at Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve and at all 10 a.m. masses. For event information for the Roger Wagner Chorale and Wagner Ensemble, check out www.rogerwagnerchorale.com and www.wagnerensemble.com.