Many people know Boston Court Pasadena as a terrific place to catch theater — less well known is its lively and ongoing program of music ranging from classical to jazz to experimental. The upcoming winter/spring season promises to be another eclectic and exciting one, programmed by the energetic Mark Saltzman, the arts center’s artistic director of music for the past seven years.
Meeting in the venue’s sunlit lobby one afternoon, Saltzman talks about his background, how he got this dream job and what he has planned for next season. He’s dressed casually in a striped T-shirt, jeans and very spiffy sneakers. His smile is particularly dazzling, and he exudes a charisma that makes you understand why he was so successful as a performer, before becoming an administrator.
Born in Berkeley, Saltzman grew up, as he says, “in the middle of the Mojave Desert” — in Barstow. Even though it might have been remote, “at that time there were a lot of public school music programs. This was back in the ’60s, and they would provide an instrument for you at your school.” In the fourth grade he decided to take up the cello. “I thought the cello was a great instrument,” he says. “It sounds the most like the human voice.” He also studied piano but later, as an undergrad at UC Irvine, he majored in voice partly because he was so impressed with the head of the choral department, Maurice Allard. “He was handsome and erudite, and he had a beautiful baritone voice,” he says. “He was filled with spirit and life.”
After graduation, Saltzman pursued a professional singing career — he is a tenor — and performed in opera and concert halls throughout the world. He eventually expanded into writing, directing and producing for companies such as the Los Angeles Opera, the Long Beach Opera, CalArts and the American Conference of Cantors. From 1983 to ’86 he lived in Banff, in the Canadian Rockies, where he joined the Music Theatre Studio Ensemble; the company was charged with creating “this new form called ‘music theater,’” which incorporated performance, readings and dance with music.
After a tour of Europe, he came back to Los Angeles and was perturbed by his daughter’s reaction to his absence. “When she was about 4½ and I came home, I could tell she had a hard time recognizing me. So a job was offered to me to cantor by a synagogue in West Hollywood,” he says. “I was about 40 then, and I thought, it’s about time to settle in.” For 20 years he was the cantor for Congregation Kol Ami in West Hollywood, where he is now cantor emeritus. It was a part-time job, which left him time to do other things, like compose music and write.
Eight years ago, Saltzman wrote a piece that interwove the story of human rights activist Elie Wiesel with the story of Job’s wife, to be presented at a special remembrance of the Holocaust sponsored by the City of West Hollywood. Jessica Kubzansky, Boston Court’s artistic director of theater, was hired to direct. At the time, the venue happened to be launching a music series and, Kubzansky says, “It became clear that his many talents and skill sets were just what Boston Court needed to bring our music programming to the next level.” She invited him to come by to check out the facilities.
“I went to the concert hall, and I fell in love with it,” Saltzman says. In a few days, he drew up three years of programming, which he presented to their then–executive director, Michael Seel. “That space is really only good for acoustic music,” he told Seel. “We can do some electronics, but we can’t do rock and roll, it doesn’t work for that.” Seel was duly impressed and gave him the job.
Boston Court has two theaters, and the music programs take place in the wood-paneled Marjorie Branson Performance Space, which seats 80. “This is a very special space, designed for music,” says David Lockington, the musical director of the Pasadena Symphony, who himself will be performing there on March 24, 2019. “It’s well-funded, it’s committed to experimental repertoire and Mark is such a fantastic advocate for the arts on so many levels.”
With his ample contacts and eclectic tastes, Saltzman has been able to bring in a wide array of talent. And as the program’s reputation grew, many artists began contacting him about performing there. The music series emphasizes work by living artists, but he has no trouble programming older work as well.
Lockington first performed at Boston Court last spring and is looking forward to his upcoming appearance. “Cello is my main performing instrument,” he says in a phone interview. “I love playing chamber music, I love playing concertos.” Next spring he’ll
present several of his own pieces, including “The Violet Viola Concerto,” based on a lullaby he wrote for his granddaughter, born early this year (yes, her name is Violet). Instrumentalists will include viola, cello and piano, and perhaps flute and harp — he’s still writing the chamber music version of this concerto. That same weekend he’ll be conducting the Pasadena Symphony in a far older piece, Mahler’s First Symphony, at the Ambassador Auditorium (March 23).
Boston Court’s upcoming music program continues to reflect Saltzman’s eclectic tastes. It launches on Feb. 14 with Storm Large — better known as the vocalist for the band Pink Martini — and continues with chamber music, duets and quartets, a salute to Scottish composer Thea Musgrave (Feb. 23), the concert version premiere of an opera about designer Alexander McQueen (March 1) and a jazz band led by Josh Nelson (March 8), all culminating in an appearance by the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (March 31).
The LACC is now under the artistic direction of new arrival Fernando Malvar-Ruiz. “One of the things I’m trying to do with the chorus is to step away from certain stereotypes,” he says. “I’m trying to find other places where choral music can happen.” While he hasn’t finalized his program, he knows he will want to have two or three ensembles. “I’m thinking of work that combines poetry and music,” he says, “music that represents a diversity of styles, that embraces the breadth of choral music.” (This winter the chorale will also perform Dec. 9 and 16 at the Pasadena Presbyterian Church.)
“I try to do mostly local, I really want to highlight local talent,” says Saltzman. “We are a local institution, and we have great talent here.”
Boston Court Pasadena is located at 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena. Visit bostoncourtpasadena.org for the schedule and tickets.