A Conversation With Lesley Leighton ’84

Lesley Leighton ’84 is associate conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, artistic director of Los Robles Master Chorale and music director of the New West Symphony Chorus. She is also the interim director of Choral Activities at La Sierra University in Riverside, Calif. Leighton studied choral music at LMU with Paul Salamunovich, choral director and professor of music. She earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in musical arts from USC. She was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

Was your childhood filled with music?
I had a very normal childhood in Westchester, here in L.A. I was lucky because my schools had choral programs, so I sang all the way through high school. That’s how I got to Loyola Marymount. I went to Westchester High School. Paul Salamunovich used to recruit at Westchester, because he knew there was a good choral program led by a man named Robert Wood. My high school choir had 80 voices.

Were your parents musically inclined?
They could both hold a tune. My mother played steel guitar in a Hawaiian music band. I still have that guitar.

How did you decide you wanted to be a choral conductor?
When I came to Loyola, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I took Paul’s choral conducting class, then I asked to repeat it. I repeated it almost every year. Paul would work with everybody individually, so no matter what level you were at, you could get something from his class. Somewhere along the line, I realized choral conducting was what I wanted to do.

Are there many women in conducting positions like yours?
There are a few, but not a bunch of us.

Is it difficult for women to become conductors?
Women have made amazing strides during the past four decades. It’s gotten a lot better. Do I think there’s equal opportunity for men and women? Absolutely not. Do I think the pay is equal? Absolutely not. But it’s coming along. The generation or two before me — Margaret Hillis, Jane Hardester, Charlene Archibeque, Magen Solomon and Lynn Bielefeld, for example — really broke down the barriers. I’m lucky being in Los Angeles, because L.A. is a great place for unconventional thinking and trying the unexpected. The L.A. Master Chorale has never indicated that my gender plays a role in any way. It’s a nonissue for us.

Is there something that’s very demanding about conducting a large master chorale that you actually like partly because it’s a real challenge?
At the L.A. Master Chorale, we do a lot of new music and premieres. It’s fun and very challenging to be the first to perform a piece of music. You can’t listen to recordings or hear others’ interpretations.

Does Southern California have its own heritage, or character, when it comes to choral music?
We do. My dissertation is about that topic, in fact. We have an amazing choral tradition that goes back to Roger Wagner at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church; he was the founding director of Los Angeles Master Chorale. There was also Robert Shaw at Pomona College, Howard Swann at Occidental College and Charles Hirt at USC. I hope the tradition continues, but choral music has largely been taken out of public schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels. It’s a shame. We had fantastic programs, and I’m proof. Now music programs are done through private schools or other private entities.

What piece do you recommend to someone who wants to begin listening to choral music?
“Os Justi,” by Anton Bruckner. It’s a stunning piece.