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Remembering Robert Shaw

April 12, 2013

I originally wrote this in 1999 when I heard of Robert Shaw’s death. Soon a movie about this man’s life may come out which gave me the urge to share it with another generation. At the time my parents were still alive, so when Shaw died was the first time I felt that I was an “older generation” the generation that had actually sung for him….

January 25, 1999 every choral conductor in the U.S., if not the world, lost a father figure and our greatest mentor when Robert Shaw died suddenly at 82 of a massive stroke.  Shaw was famous for his work with Fred Waring, then with his own Robert Shaw Chorale, and finally with the Atlanta Symphony and Chorus.  However, it was through his many workshops at summer institutes and universities, in France, and in the last decade at Carnegie Hall, that he touched and influenced so many of us, and made everyone who ever sang for him a disciple.

I knew Shaw, the man, not personally, but his deep spiritual artistic and practical self, which was so freely shared with those who sang for him, or I should say labored for him in the meticulous preparation of a masterwork.  If I add up all the rehearsal hours I spent with Shaw it comes to probably two months of my life.

First, as a twenty-year-old musician who thought maybe choral conducting was my calling, I took a two-week workshop at Westminster Choir College in 1980.  In the first week alone, we prepared Verdi’s Four Sacred Pieces Brueckner’s Te Deum and Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms for performance at the Temple Music Festival.  The workshop chorus was unauditioned in those days (although it was ostensibly made up of music teachers) and I remember my trepidation when Shaw, unhappy with the soprano sound, began going down the row, crucifying soprano after soprano as each one sang individually.  At one point during the week, Mr. Shaw was not pleased with our progress and threatened to cancel the performance.  No-one doubted that he meant it.  We pulled together though, and the concert was an experience that would mark me for life.  That man could conduct 200 singers and make every one feel as if every nuance and detail of each individual’s singing made all the difference.  My mind was made up, I wanted to do that!

The second week at Westminster was a little less frantic, as we only prepared Haydn’s Creation for a performance at Avery Fisher Hall.  Shaw had more time to stop and preach his gospel of pitch, rhythm, tone quality and enunciation.  Each facet was to be  separated out and rehearsed to perfection until they were allowed to be put back together.  I also began my habit of taking notes in the front of my score, jotting down everything he said.  I pulled out all my Shaw-marked scores when he died.  There it all is, everything a young conductor needed to know but didn’t yet understand how much!

Although he was famous for his interpretations of 18th and 19th century masterworks, Shaw always championed 20th century composers as well.   (This sometimes got him into trouble with the ASO Board of Directors!)  In 1981, he came to Yale to direct one of his favorites, Hindemith’s monumental requiem When Lilac’s Last in the Dooryard Bloomed.  We had assembled the Yale Glee Club, Concert Choir and New Haven Symphony Chorus (and Yale Symphony).  Shaw was not without collegiate humor, and managed not to take offence when we all showed up dressed like him (in navy blue sweat shirts with towels around our necks.)  As assistant conductor to Fenno Heath, I had been doing the warm-ups all year…”Don’t worry,” Fenno told me, “I’m sure Mr. Shaw wants to do his own warm-up exercises.”  Imagine the pounding of my heart when I saw Fenno scanning the room for me at the beginning of our first rehearsal.  Shaw had apparently said, “Oh, do what you always do!”  He graciously complimented me on the warm-up later (that hissing exercise with the 2s against 3s!).

In 1985, the Bach tricentennial year, Robert Shaw came to Cincinnati Conservatory to lead our concert choir in a performance of the St. John Passion.  He had developed a working English translation, believing the immediacy of the drama of the great work should not be lost on modern English-speaking audiences.   Shaw was never all count-singing and diphthong-analyzing–but always went to the spiritual heart of a work.  When we sang those crowd choruses in the Passion we were so angry and mean that it really felt as if we had participated in the crucifixion.  Through the work we experienced sin and guilt and we really felt that final redemption.

In 1990 Carnegie Hall established an annual series of professional workshops under Shaw’s direction.  When he planned Britten’s War Requiem for 1994 (my favorite 20th century choral work) I mustered my courage and my voice teacher’s help, made an audition tape, and was accepted.  That week was inspirational: beyond his usual pickiness about rhythm, pitch, and enunciation, I remember Shaw working particularly hard on tone color (sometimes half of us whispered and half of us sang), and on explaining Britten’s integration of Wilfred Owen’s devastating WWI poetry into the Latin Requiem Mass.  The chorus was phenomenal–I remember Shaw actually stopping a dress rehearsal to tell the second altos that the beginning of the Recordare was “gorgeous–as good as it gets!”  This was one of the greatest compliments I ever received, even though there were 25 of us!  The War Requiem performance, called “soul-bruising” by the Village Voice was even more emotional with Benjamin Luxon as the baritone.  He had once sung the work under Britten yet was now almost totally deaf.  I recall seeing Shaw in tears at the first entrance of the boys voices (The American Boychoir, from the second balcony) and wondering how we would all make it through the rest of the work.

I thought at the time that it might be my last chance to sing/study with maestro Shaw (he was 77) but he went on to plan the workshop through the end of the millennium and we all started to assume he would live forever.  From 1996’s Verdi Requiem, I found this in the front of my score: “Our job as conductor is communicating to singers and audience, while getting out of the way of the composer, 1.information, intellect and instrumental and vocal know-how, and 2.  passion.”  From 1997’s wonderful Elijah performance I found this colorful barb “you sing like a hose, when you should be singing like a necklace”.

At last Sunday night’s Harmonium rehearsal of the Duruflé Requiem we were talking a lot about Shaw and his techniques–I had recently borrowed soprano Linda Clark’s Duruflé score with her “Shaw markings.”  The next day, assistant conductor Mark Miller called me from his car, when he heard the news of Shaw’s death.   I was truly stunned at the thought that Shaw was no longer to inspire us in this world.  It felt like a huge responsibility that my colleagues and I must now listen with Shaw’s demanding ears, inspire with his attention to details and believe with his passion that what we do matters to all humanity.  Shaw reminded us all to be “amateurs” in the true sense of the word–to sing “for love.”  And those of us who labored with him–how lucky we were–must pass on these stories to the next generation of conductors.

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