Choral music's great loss

Appreciation: In a brilliant career, conductor Robert Shaw lifted voices like no other.

January 26, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

The first of Robert Shaw's many honors was a citation in 1943 from the National Association of Composers and Conductors that called the 26-year-old musician "America's greatest choral conductor." Fifty-six years later it would be hard to find anyone in the mu- sic business who disagreed with that assessment -- except to change "America's greatest" to "the world's."

Shaw died yesterday in New Haven, Conn., at the age of 82, of a stroke. He leaves a void in the classical-music world that no single conductor will be able to fill.

"His death will create a different dynamic in the world of choral music," said Tom Hall, music director of the Baltimore Choral Arts Society and president-elect of Chorus America, the national service agency for all American choruses.

"His name towered over everyone else," added Hall, who sang in Shaw's Atlanta Symphony Chorus and later helped him prepare choruses for performances. "There was Shaw and then there was everyone else."

Anyone who heard Shaw conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus -- whether Brahms' "German Requiem" in 1988 or Mozart's C Minor Mass in 1995 -- will never forget them. The warm blanket of sound Shaw created in the Brahms made a listener feel as secure and as loved as an infant in his mother's arms. Shaw interpreted the Mozart with splendor and without any trace of heaviness.

Whatever the period in which it was written, Shaw seemed to find the appropriate sound for each work he conducted. But every performance he gave featured transparent instrumental and choral textures, as well as a control of rhythm that was as resilient as it was secure.

It never troubled Shaw that he was always referred to as the great choral conductor, rather than simply as a great conductor.

"The difference implies that a person who's a choral conductor is somewhat lesser than one who is a symphonic conductor," he said. "But [composer Paul] Hindemith once told me that society will come to its senses and realize that choral music is the most mature and emotionally important music in the repertory."

In retrospect, it seems almost inevitable that the California-born Shaw became a choral conductor. His father was a minister and his mother, the daughter of a minister, was a well-known gospel singer. At Pomona College, however, Shaw studied English literature with little or no thought of a career in music. That all changed in 1938 when the famous band leader Fred Waring arrived at the Pomona campus to make a movie and heard Shaw conduct the college glee club. Waring invited the youngster to come to New York to form the Fred Waring Glee Club. The rest is history.

In the distant days of live radio broadcasts, the singing of the Fred Waring Glee Club on the popular band's regular shows took on a new polish. Every word could be understood, the intonation and balances were flawless, and singing teachers around the country began to tell their students to listen to the programs for examples of excellent singing.

It was only a few years later that Arturo Toscanini, rehearsing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with a chorus that Shaw had prepared for him, turned to his orchestra and said: "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for."

For Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (and later for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra), Shaw created choruses for Verdi's Requiem that could produce an unprecedented wall of sound and that could lighten miraculously for Handel oratorios and Haydn masses.

His experiences with Toscanini inspired Shaw to expand into symphonic conducting.

He studied formally in 1950 with the great conductors Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski; an invitation from his friend Szell in 1952 to guest-conduct the Cleveland Orchestra persuaded him, he once said, "to make the big switch."

He was associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1956-67, leaving in the final year to become music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. The next 21 years constituted one of the glorious chapters in American symphonic history.

Shaw transformed the Atlanta ensemble -- a community orchestra with 60 players, most of them amateurs, who played in a civic arena -- into a major orchestra. He helped to build it a home in a superb new concert hall and recorded several best-selling albums that won the orchestra prizes -- including 13 Grammys -- as well as an international reputation.

After his resignation as the ASO's music director, Shaw continued to record with the orchestra and with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. He began that group as part of his activities with the Robert Shaw Institute, which was founded to foster excellence in the music, especially in the choral arts.

A few years ago, on his final visit to Baltimore, Shaw tried to explain why he loved to conduct choral music.

"The choruses I work with are almost always made up of volunteers who do it for love," he said. "The expression `professional musical artist' always seemed a little strange to me. I figure that it must be as hard to be one of those as it would be to be a professional sexual artist."

Pub Date: 1/26/99

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