50 Years in Washington: An Interview with Robert Shafer

Choral conductor Robert Shafer reflects on his many experiences over the span of his 50 years in the Washington, DC choral community with choral singer and writer Michael Doan.

MD: You will be celebrating your 50th year as a choral conductor in Washington, DC.  Some are calling you the “last of the old guard” of the Washington choral community. What are some of the varied musical roles have you taken in 50 years in the choral life of the nation’s capital?

RS: As you say, I have had many opportunities, and I have responded to them to the best of my ability.  Each career step that I have taken has not always been in logical progression. That’s probably true for most people.

After receiving my piano performance degree at Catholic University 1967, I  decided that I wanted to become a composer. In 1968, a great opportunity came my way to become a choral conductor. At the age of 22, I was invited to become the director of  the choir and madrigal singers at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia, which had an outstanding choral music program started by Don Haines Guidotti in 1962. In 1971, I was named the music director of the Oratorio Society of Montgomery County (Md.), which later became the Oratorio Society of Washington, which later became the Washington Chorus. In 2007, I began my work as artistic director of the City Choir of Washington. 

After I left my teaching post at Madison in 1974, I became the Music Director at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and in 1977, the Music Director at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. At St. Matthew’s and the Shrine I led full paid professional choirs. After leaving the Shrine in 1983, I became Director of Choral Music at Shenandoah Conservatory, where I served until May of 2016 and am now Professor Emeritus.

MD: What have been some of the high points of your career?

RS: Quite honestly, every day I get to work with wonderful singers and, with them, study and perform great choral music is a highlight for me. Of course, winning a Grammy award for Best Choral Performance for a live performance of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem at the Kennedy Center in 2000 was a great thrill. I prepared over 200 concerts for the National Symphony at the Kennedy Center. I am proud of the premieres of two commissioned works by the late John Tavener in 2013.  I have also loved teaching, and working with young people. In my 33 years at Shenandoah Conservatory, the choir took 15 European concert tours and premiered many new works. Nadia Boulanger taught me that the earlier you can give a person an intense musical experience, the more life-changing that experience becomes in his or her life. Singing is a spiritual catalyst—giving us a glimpse of what is eternal far beyond the day to day existence of our mundane lives.

MD: What changes in choral music have you seen over this time?

RS: One big change is the fact that it is now harder to attract audiences to choral concerts. There are many reasons, one being that today there are many more entertainment choices people can make. Tickets are becoming a lot more expensive. People with huge TV systems and great sound systems figure they can stay at home, not pay babysitters, and enjoy whatever kind of entertainment that they choose.

The quality of music education has declined in some schools. In recent years, the “show choir” development has become popular. In far too many schools, students who used to sing Mozart, Bach and Brahms are now singing medleys of pop songs. The good news is that this seems to be changing. I am quite optimistic. Many schools are returning to serious choral music education.

Repertoire has become quite restricted in large community choirs devoted to the masterworks of choral literature. The B Minor Mass, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Mozart’s Requiem used to attract ticket buyers almost as well as Messiah and Carmina Burana. Now, only the latter two will sell well. Still, with the uptrend in quality choral music education, I have faith that this situation will improve in the near future.

MD: City Choir is a member of Chorus America. What has been your connection?

RS: When I was music director at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception back in the ‘70s, Michael Korn formed an organization named the “Association of Professional Vocal Ensembles (APVE),” based in Philadelphia. He asked me if he could hold its initial meetings at the Shrine, which, of course, I agreed to. Later on, APVE became Chorus America, and was and still is immensely helpful to both professional and community choirs.

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