"Heard in the Halls": Robert Shaw's Legacy

Faculty members and participants at Chorus America’s Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium reflect on the qualities that made Shaw a choral icon.

A receiving line greeted Ann Howard Jones after the first day’s sessions at the Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium. When she crossed through the Woodruff Arts Center and entered Atlanta Symphony Hall, she came face to face with several old friends. Longtime members of the symphony chorus, gathering for a rehearsal, eagerly shared hugs, broad smiles, and memories from Jones’ tenure assisting Robert Shaw in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As much as she must have appreciated the warm welcome home, Jones felt a responsibility to be in Atlanta to share what she had learned from Shaw. “If I don’t do it, and if those of us who knew him well don’t do it, it will die, it will go away.”

For Jones, the most important lesson to pass along at the symposium was Shaw’s “commitment to the symbols on the page as being what the composer wanted to hear.” Prior to Shaw, Jones argued, American choral music was “too much about the conductor—the ‘Westminster sound,’ the ‘St. Olaf sound.’ Shaw changed all that. He changed our profession. He changed choral music in the United States of America.”

Shaw Symposium Online Resources

The Brahms Requiem: Questions for the Conductor
Along with questions about his musical and textual motivation, Brahms left several other issues to puzzle over—from interpretive matters like tempo to more practical programming concerns. Symposium faculty share insights into specific concerns conductors ought to address as they prepare the Requiem.

My First German Requiem
Music journalist Matthew Sigman writes about his first experience of the Brahms Requiem: the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus’s spring performance at Carnegie Hall.
Robert Shaw and the Brahms Requiem
Chorus America's Robert Shaw Centenary Symposium explored the conductor’s deep connection to this masterwork—and what it reveals about his approach to music and his legacy.

“He had very high standards. It could be the smallest intricacy, but when someone screwed up, he stopped immediately,” recalled symposium faculty member Leonard Ratzlaff. “Singers learned to respect the perspicacity of his ears.” Working with his own choruses at the University of Alberta, Ratzlaff still applies methods Shaw used to help singers articulate music for clarity and handle phrasing dynamics.

Symposium participant Jo Anne Wasserman experienced Shaw’s influence firsthand as a college student, attending one of his workshops. Today, as artistic director and conductor of the Santa Barbara (California) Choral Society, she uses count singing and other Shaw techniques with her singers. “You knew there was genius there,” she said. “He made such an impression, it’s etched in my mind—his demands that singers be musicians,” a sentiment echoed by another symposium participant, Alice Tremont. A member of the University Musical Society Choral Union, Ann Arbor, Michigan (and an attorney), Tremont has sung for conductors Shaw influenced. She thinks of Shaw “like one of the faces on Mount Rushmore.”

The “salutary thing” about Shaw, according to Jones, was the “astounding” level of detail he brought to bear. In his ability to “lift those symbols off that page into reality in a rehearsal, I think he was inimitable,” she said. His approach made his singers feel as if “we would let him down, and the composer, if we didn’t perform what the music asked of us. Nothing was casual with him.” Jones continued. “Everything was planned, everything was worked out, everything was prayed over.”

But we can’t all be Robert Shaw. Artistic gifts aside, who in the real world of choral music-making has time to do all the planning he did? What Jones learned from Shaw is that “one doesn’t have time not to do that.” Shaw’s systematic building of discipline and attention to detail, she contended, are essential lessons to pass along. Shaw demonstrated that such efforts can result in an unrivalled beauty and clarity of sound. Deborah Brown, artistic director of Whatcom Chorale in Bellingham, Washington, was drawn to the symposium in part because of Shaw’s 1992 recording of the Brahms Requiem. “The sound of his chorus is remarkable—the rhythmic integrity, the balanced blend, the dynamic range, the shaping of phrases. It makes me cry,” she said.

On April 12, several of symposium chair André Thomas’s students sang the Requiem in Tallahassee. Then ten of them drove all night to Atlanta to join the symposium. Thomas got to know Shaw through workshops Shaw led at Florida State University for his longtime friend Clayton Krehbiel. Shaw continued his visits to FSU after Thomas succeeded Krehbiel as director of choral activities.

Preparing to perform the Requiem at FSU, the students worked from Shaw’s fastidiously marked score, which he had given to Thomas. Brandon Boyd, a PhD candidate in choral music education, said the experience made it feel as though Shaw and Brahms were good friends, “like contemporaries.” “That’s how Dr. Thomas makes it seem,” agreed Boyd’s classmate Hillary Ridgley. “It’s like he was really there. It helps you make the connection to the work seem immediate, rather than taking place in some distant time period.”  Thomas said he sees Shaw “like a great grandpa,” passing along lessons and stories to his descendants. “If you admire someone, about 90 percent of the time, your students will value their contribution as well.”

Admiration for Shaw and commitment to his legacy became recurring themes during the symposium. That made an impression on musicologist Michael Musgrave, the one faculty member who had not been part of Shaw’s circle. Musgrave knew and admired Shaw’s recordings—the clear articulation of the text, the richness of the sound—but he was not familiar with Shaw’s methods. Speaking over coffee across the way from the Woodruff Arts Center, he remarked on his colleagues’ commitment to Shaw and the high standard Shaw set: “Everyone here seems to have been very fond of him, they supported him. Even though he sometimes worked them very hard, there’s still clearly a personal loyalty—a much wider loyalty than one finds for many other conductors.”

With the Tuesday evening rehearsal about to begin, Jones’s old friends found their places on the risers, she made her way into the auditorium, and other symposium participants took seats at the side of the stage. “Being in the place where Shaw spent the vast amount of his career, seeing the older musicians, knowing they were active participants in his legacy, was a neat thing,” remarked symposium participant Thomas Dooley, director of music at First Presbyterian Church of San Antonio, Texas. “It was like going to the birthplace of a tradition that became associated with him so intimately.”

Atlanta Symphony Director of Choruses Norman Mackenzie and his singers had the stage first to work on choral issues. They used most of their hour going over trouble spots in the brand-new piece, Jonathan Leshnoff’s Zohar. After 45 minutes, as orchestra members began to filter onto the stage, Mackenzie gave just a moment to the Brahms, shaping the opening “Selig” with a “hairpin” crescendo-decrescendo. With the entire ensemble on stage, ASO music director Robert Spano rehearsed Zohar intensively, stopping often to adjust balances. By contrast Spano paused just five times to address issues in the Requiem. Hearing the chorus in this familiar, beloved territory, Thomas was struck by the singers’ precise diction, noting their use of “shadow vowels” after final consonants. “The minute they started the Brahms, I said to myself, ‘This is Mr. Shaw’s choir.’”

Reflecting for a moment as the symposium neared its end, Thomas expressed deep gratitude for the gifts Shaw passed along to succeeding generations of choral musicians. “I would never give up that opportunity for growth,” he said. “I grew some more here in these three days. That’s what has inspired me about Mr. Shaw. As he taught us, you just keep growing until God says it’s over.”

Don Lee is a media producer, editor, writer, and amateur choral singers who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. At NPR in Washington DC, he was the executive producer of Performance Today.

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