By Josef Woodard
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Now in its 14th year, the annual GRAMMY Salute to Classical Music is one of many Los Angeles-based events leading up to Music's Biggest Night on Jan. 31. This year's honoree, presented the President's Merit Award at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, Calif., Wednesday night, was one of those indisputable and inevitable choices: masterful tenor (and not-so-secretly, baritone), educator, administrator, and all-around musical powerhouse Plácido Domingo, with a nearly 50-year career and a gleaming global presence.
As it happened, the timing and regional positioning couldn't have been more appropriate: Domingo's now eight-year stint as general director of the Los Angeles Opera has reached a recent zenith with the company's lavish, surreal, ambitious, and long-awaited production of Wagner's Ring cycle, culminating this spring.
At presentation's end, the gracious tenor — in "street" clothes rather than his customary operatic wardrobe — alluded briefly to the current Ring factor in his acceptance speech. But on this occasion, the focus was more on the broad swath than on this season's buzzes (which would also include the singer's first U.S. performance as a baritone, in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production of Verdi's Simon Boccanegra).
Master of ceremonies and longtime classical radio broadcaster Rich Caparella led the proceedings, recounting the Domingo story to-date while stirring in current projects musical interludes. Born in Madrid, Spain, in 1941, and raised in Mexico City, Domingo made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1968 and has thus logged more than 600 performances in that hallowed hall, along with eventually establishing himself as a titan among opera figures. Along the way came the Three Tenors, directing the Washington and L.A. Opera companies, winning seven GRAMMY and three Latin GRAMMY Awards, and taking on more than 130 roles, an unprecedented achievement for an opera singer.
What would a Domingo tribute be without music? Grant Gershon, of Los Angeles Master Chorale fame, conducted a pared-down complement of players from the L.A. Opera orchestra, and four gifted young singers, some who are products of the Domingo-Thornton Young Artists Program. The 18-year-old tenor Sean Michael Plumb sang "Bella Siccome Un Angelo" from Donizetti's Don Pasquale, and baritone José Adán Pérez represented the Spanish zarzuela genre championed by Domingo (his parents ran a zarzuela company in Mexico City) with "Amor, Vida De Mi Vida" by Federico Moreno Torroba. Tenor Davíd Lomelí nailed the high notes and high emotionality of "Che Gelida Manina," from Puccini's La Boheme, and from the feminine end of the spectrum came soprano Ana María Martínez, who has worked with Domingo and is busy carving out her own international reputation, wowing with "Song To The Moon" from Dvorák's Rusalka. All the while, the kindly and approving master sat in the front row, just a thrown kiss or two away from the spotlighted singers.
At evening's end, Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow did the honors of presenting the President's Merit Award. Ever the gracious legend, Domingo took the microphone and called the presentation, "A very thrilling and emotional evening. After recording for over 42 years, it is difficult to remember each one. But certainly, it's the most terrible thing to listen to them. You remember exactly what you were not doing right. I can tell you that this is absolutely true. You have to be very demanding of yourself.
"We have this privilege to make people happy. For those few hours, they can forget about their troubles. As performers, this is the greatest privilege."
(To view photos from GRAMMY Salute To Classical Music and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)