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Local opera star comes home

Nmon Ford is coming home but, truth be told, he’s never left. After years of concerts around the world, the Pomona-bred opera star is performing two shows this weekend at Bridges Hall of Music.

“All the people who can’t normally hear me sing are like, ‘Oh wait: we can just go right up the street and it’s free?’” Indeed, both Little Bridges shows—8 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. Easter Sunday—are free and open to the public. 

If he has anything to do with it, the two time Grammy Award-winner’s people, including his mother Piccola Ford-Livene and father Carlos Ford-Livene, who still reside in Pomona, will be the very vocal contingent in the first three rows.

“They said, ‘Well, we don’t want to embarrass you.’ And I said, ‘Let me tell you what you need to do. You need to yell as loudly as you can and have a good time!’”

The baritone still lives in Pomona as well, but has plans to relocate to New York City before summer. He spends about half his time on the road in the US and Europe. 

As a youth, Mr. Ford attended St. Paul’s Lutheran, Claremont’s Foothill Country Day School, spent a year at Webb and two years at Damien, and graduated from Pomona High in the mid-1980s. He earned his bachelor’s degree in music and journalism, and then his master’s in music and arts administration  from USC. He also holds a master’s in business administration from Cal State San Bernardino. 

He began performing professionally while still in college. The boyishly handsome Mr. Ford demurred when asked his actual age, but despite appearing much younger, he is in his 40s. 

Music was there from the very beginning. He began taking piano lessons at 3 years old from teacher Ruth McGruder. “Because she [Ms. McGruder] was so well-known and so well-regarded, music in our neighborhood was something that we were accustomed to. And classical music was not foreign,” Mr. Ford said. “So there was never a gap between classical music and the community. We all knew it.”

The Ford family’s church, Pomona’s South Hills Presbyterian, was also instrumental in forging his identity. “Music was always part of the equation [at the church],” Mr. Ford recalled, “and it was always at least partially classical. So it wasn’t a foreign entity for any of us.”

At home, “No kind of music was off limits,” he said. “So anything we were interested in, we were free to participate in. The music I played was classical, but I would also go off and play Prince or whoever. And it was all okay. There was never any sense that there was any part of music that we couldn’t plug into directly.” 

Mr. Ford, who spent his school years soaking up the music curriculum in public and private schools, has strong opinions about the arts in Trump’s America, where federal funding is either threatened or has been eliminated altogether. 

“The focus on everything that helps build all parts of the brain isn’t exactly what it used to be,” he said. “There are studies that talk about what music does as far as social identity and having to practice something, and having measurable, quantifiable improvement. There are all these things that are measurable accomplishments that aren’t valued simply because they are musical. Back in the day that wasn’t the case.

“What gets the money, and I think most of the attention, and not entirely without reason, is STEM [science, technology, engineering and math],” he said. “The unfortunate irony being [music and other arts] build the capacity to do better in these other things.” 

Mr. Ford’s father is a retired Cal Poly Pomona Math Department chairman and Raytheon Corp. senior engineer. He has a doctorate in math and nuclear physics.

 “Music is of major importance to him,” Mr. Ford said of his father. “He used to sing in the church choir and he reads music. And he’ll be the first one to say that the complexity of what happens when you’re playing a Ravel concerto is no different in what you’re dealing with—just in terms of how your brain’s synapses fire—than him working out some sort of major aeronautical equation so a plane doesn’t fall out of the air. It’s very similar. But unfortunately those connections are no longer focused on or valued.”

Despite being disheartened by the increasing marginalization of the arts in US schools, or perhaps because of it, Mr. Ford remains committed to spreading the gospel of the myriad benefits of an education that includes an art component.

“Because musicians and music are seen as being ephemeral, and not this really solid thing, they don’t get the credit for teaching people that once you stick with something, continuing to do that builds that muscle,” he said. “It builds that mindset so that later on, when you do get into that STEM class, and calculus becomes really, really hard, and chemical engineering becomes really, really hard, that you’ve got something to rely on, even if it’s not in the front of your mind; it’s, if you stick with this eventually it’ll get better and you’ll get better at it.”

Mr. Ford spends some of his time on the road speaking with school-aged kids around the country.

“My mom says, ‘Sometimes you just gotta help people do right,’” he said. “Sometimes you’ve just got to tell the kids, ‘You just have to keep going. You just have to get past good enough and get on the other side of that. And then, if you’re on the other side, and you just want to go outside and sit on the grass at that point, then go ahead. And then you can’t say that you don’t know that that’s an option.’”

Despite the seriousness of the times, Mr. Ford says he’s heartened by some of its by-products. The heightened level of activism among artists is a healthy development, he said. So, too, is a new widespread entrepreneurial spirit he sees among individuals and even some large foundations who must now hustle to keep the lights on. It’s not ideal, of course, but perhaps the new paradigm will activate a generation of artists who will have to take more comprehensive control of their careers.

“I think artists are responsible for themselves,” Mr. Ford said. “It’s wonderful to have endowments and government sponsorship. I think those things should exist regardless of who’s in office. But if they don’t, artists are ultimately responsible for artists.”

But even in these troubled times, Mr. Ford is optimistic for the future of opera and the arts in general. 

“I don’t think I’m ever without hope,” he said. “[Art] has been around through a lot of other times a whole lot crazier than this. People said that rock was going to go out 10 years ago, but Metallica is still selling albums.” Regardless of musical genre or art medium, “the people who care about it enough to support it will support it. It’s just a matter of making sure they know where it is.”

Where it is this week is at Little Bridges, 150 E. Fourth St., for two free shows, 8 p.m. tonight and 3 p.m. Sunday, as Pomona College’s Choir, under the leadership of Donna M. Di Grazia, and the Pomona College Orchestra led by Eric Lindholm, team up with Mr. Ford on Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”

More information is available at nmonford.com, pomona.edu or (909) 607-2671.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com