Editor’s observe: In celebration of our 10th anniversary, every week we will republish a narrative from our archives that sparked robust response from readers, showcased nice writing or marked historical hallmarks in the evolution of Atlanta’s arts group.
In 2016, ArtsATL partnered with WABE-FM and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for a collection of tales and broadcasts that marked the 100th birthday of the legendary conductor Robert Shaw. This piece by Noel Morris delves into Shaw’s legacy as a choral conductor and the evolution of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Refrain.
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“It’s about God, goddammit!”
Thus raged Robert Shaw. He couldn’t bear half-heartedness. Within the spring of 1991, he was rehearsing a refrain of 600 in Atlanta for a performance of Mahler’s hymn of reward, the Symphony No. 8. Zeal is what the language indicated; zeal is what he expected — but he all the time expected that. He was a preacher’s child.
April marks the 100th anniversary of the delivery of Robert Shaw. The ASO will rejoice his legacy with performances at Symphony Hall April 14 and 16, then a live performance at Carnegie Hall on April 30.
Shaw was a natural, if unlikely musician who stumbled into an art type and revolutionized it. Born in 1916, he came from an extended line of preachers. He claimed he’d had each intention of following go well with when entertainer Fred Waring noticed him directing his school glee club. Waring provided him a conducting job on the spot.
Waring’s supply — and whatever possessed him to recommend such a thing to a 22-year-old stranger — is telling. The youth had no formal musical training; he would have to depart faculty, abandon spiritual aspirations and transfer to New York — but Shaw had that effect on individuals.
In 1995, when he took his Atlanta refrain to Carnegie Hall for a Mahler eighth, international opera star Sylvia McNair sang within the soprano part — she wasn’t a headliner; she wasn’t paid. She simply needed to be there.
“I liked singing for that man. God, I beloved it,” stated Brenda Pruitt, a longtime member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Refrain.
“Sang for Robert Shaw” turned the gold commonplace on a vocal music skilled’s resume. The truth is, it turned essential to remind chorus members not to state “studied with Robert Shaw” on their resumes (although his rehearsals have been like “taking a master class each Monday evening,” stated conductor Harriet Ziegenhals).
It was Shaw himself who insisted, “I’m not a instructor.” His humility at not having had the conservatory pedigree by no means left him — it drove him to grow to be a lifelong music scholar. He sought classes from probably the most esteemed musicians. In midcareer, while holding a good submit as music director of the San Diego Symphony, he accepted a job as assistant to Hungarian maestro George Szell in Cleveland. Out of that, the person in blue received a worthy mentor; Szell received an exceptional chorus.
“Each choir director within the city and surrounding area who might, joined the Cleveland Orchestra Refrain,” wrote Ziegenhals. “Whether or not Shaw labored in New York, Cleveland, or Atlanta, choral music within the space flourished and requirements have been high.”
Shaw was a zealot. He was driven to review, arrange, follow, learn and write about music, especially in lengthy letters to his refrain — at all hours. “To be an artist isn’t the privilege of a few, but the necessity of us all,” he wrote.
There was no place for Jim Crow in Shaw’s world. When he shaped his Collegiate Chorale in 1941, Pastor Norman Vincent Peale provided him rehearsal area offering he dismiss the African People, Jews and Catholics. That was nonnegotiable. The 25-year-old maestro found another area. When he took his Robert Shaw Chorale on one of many famous live performance tours, he stated they’d “sleep in automobiles” earlier than they’d stay in a segregated lodge. And integrated audiences have been a situation for having him on the concert schedule.
To know the efficiency of his vision, one only has to think about the state of choral music in pre-Shaw, 1930s America. Choruses largely have been social gatherings. Most of them never aspired to succeed in the musical requirements of the good symphony orchestras. They didn’t supply live performance seasons of great compositions. There wasn’t a lot touring; and few championed critical works by American composers. And funnily sufficient, they didn’t use the phrase “chorale” of their identify. All that modified after Shaw.
From his earliest days in New York, he got down to treatment the hole between music on the web page — the composer’s intention — and music in efficiency. “Wind instruments can articulate rhythms by going tuh-tuh-tuh,” stated Carolyn Paulin, who sang beneath Shaw over the span of 30 years. “We’ve got those pesky words to cope with. Take the phrase ‘the.’ When do you sing the ‘th’ in order that the ‘uh’ is on the beat?”
Singers sometimes place consonants before the beat, vowels on the beat. In follow, 200 singers might provide you with 200 barely totally different ideas about when to sing the “th.”
Shaw sought to get rid of the guesswork (and the sloppiness), and develop the instruments to do it. “Make your contribution, however make it anonymously,” he stated.
Shaw was a taskmaster about fundamentals. He drilled his chorus to sing “the identical pitch, on the similar prompt on the same vowel on the similar dynamic degree with considerably the same shade which is dramatically suitable to the textual content at that moment.” And in the event that they lapsed, he’d drill them again.
“Properly, there should be one place on the planet the place all the appropriate notes are sung and played,” snapped keyboardist and conductor Norman Mackenzie, imitating his previous boss. “And if that place needs to be Atlanta, nicely then, that’s the best way it’s gonna be.”
Mackenzie, now director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, was groomed for the place by Shaw. “What you need is to not create a selected, good sound that has no character to it,” he stated. “What you need is the other of that.” In other words, solely once you’ve gotten all of the singers targeted on attaining uniformity of sound can it’s coloured and various to raised categorical the music.
Shaw left Cleveland for Atlanta in 1967. Mackenzie described Atlanta as having “a reasonably good regional orchestra at the moment.” But Shaw proceeded to mould and construct a world-class ensemble out of the Atlanta Symphony. “And we are still standing on his shoulders at the moment,” stated Mackenzie.
Shaw’s legacy goes far deeper than the 14 Grammy Awards or international acclaim. “The method that Shaw devised has proven to be repeatable,” stated Pruitt. “Norman will get the same musical results using those methods. That a part of it’s fantastic and continues to be fantastic.”
What made Shaw such a strong determine is the very thing that drove him. “The intention of the composer oozed out of him,” stated Paulin. Most major conductors “have a very robust character and you get swept up in it. But you all the time felt with Shaw it was concerning the music. It’s not, ‘Oh take a look at me, I’m an awesome conductor.’”
Many in Atlanta felt, between the orchestra and the refrain, that Shaw played favorites with the vocalists — a combined blessing as a result of he couldn’t bear to pay them to perform his beloved art. “Music is like sex. It’s too essential to be left as much as the professionals,” he stated famously. That wasn’t essentially fashionable with the singers, but the coverage of not paying the ASO Refrain members continues to today.
However, “individuals moved to this town and took educating positions and church positions so they might sing in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Refrain,” stated Mackenzie. “And now you see a proliferation of fantastic church choirs, fantastic school choirs, fantastic high school choirs in this space, really good solo singing, small ensembles which are really making a reputation for themselves — all due to the seeds he planted so a few years ago.”
In 1986, Pastor Norman Vincent Peale, the man who pressured the Collegiate Chorale from their rehearsal area so many years before, penned a letter to Robert Shaw. In it, Peale lamented “[my] insensitive and silly mistake in reference to the nice organization you have been creating . . . I’ve ever been sorry about my lack of cooperation. I am positive you’ve gotten lengthy since forgotten all about it. But I by no means did.”
In December of 1998, Robert Shaw wrenched his back in the course of the ASO’s annual Christmas live performance. He was scheduled to conduct Messiah with the chamber chorus the following week. The maestro was “obviously in a number of pain and had to conduct rehearsals sitting down,” stated Pruitt. He did manage to get by means of the primary performance standing but sat on a stool to conduct the second. After that, his doctor put him on mattress rest.
Shaw asked Mackenzie, who was enjoying harpsichord for the collection, to conduct the third and last Messiah performance. Minutes earlier than they went on, all 60 singers crowded around a telephone in the workplace of Nola Frink, Shaw’s assistant, so he might tackle them over a speaker telephone. Pruitt remembers Shaw telling the singers, “I’ll be considering of every observe as you go alongside.”
They by no means saw him once more. He died on January 25, 1999.
In his 82 years, Robert Shaw climbed onto the rostrum and carried out tons of of singing workshops at universities and at Carnegie Hall. “The drive of his character and the genius of his message have been such that folks flocked from all over (as I did) to study from the master,” stated Mackenzie. And choral music in America is profoundly modified.
Wanting back, one might very nicely argue that the preacher’s son from California did enter the family enterprise. However, as Atlanta radio character Lois Reitzes put it, “The live performance corridor was his sanctuary; and the rostrum was his pulpit.”
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