Robert Shaw died on Monday, January 25, 1999. In the thirteen years since his death there have been many wonderful choral performances that have taken place in America. Still, it is impossible to imagine what these performances would have been like without the influence his choral genius had on generations of choral singers and conductors. For the second half of the 20th century Shaw’s name was synonymous with choral excellence, and his life and work continue to influence many of us today. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to sing under his baton for a number of years and was honored to be one of two persons invited to write a reflection on his life for the Atlanta Journal Constitution on January 29, 1999, just days after he died. I remember writing this homage through a veil of grief, knowing that thousands of others throughout the country, even the world, were feeling the same sense of loss. Here is what I said:
Dear Mr. Shaw,
It was in the fall of 1973 that I first met you, and I recognize it today as one of the pivotal experiences of my life. I was auditioning for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and was thrilled to be meeting you, my idol since age 12. I recall standing there, a young college instructor just two years out of graduate school, with knees trembling as I heard you softly say after my auditon, “You’re in, and I think I’d like you to come back and audition for the Chamber Chorus as well.” I don’t think my feet even touched the ground on the way back to my car! Well, the Chamber Chorus audition went fine and even resulted in an invitation to solo in the November performances of Handel’s “Messiah.” Within several weeks of meeting you, I was standing on the stage of Symphony Hall performing as a soloist under your baton. I could hardly believe my good fortune.
What transpired during the next ten years of singing for you as both a chorus memeber and a soloist was a succession of musical epiphanies, each one somehow illuminating my life with brightness and clarity. I remember Florence Kopleff, your alto soloist of choice for several decades, singing ‘Agnus Dei’ from Bach’s “B Minor Mass” and thinking that if I closed my eyes I might be transported to heaven. I also remember a time when the Chamber Chorus was performing Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” During a section of exquisite beauty, I felt tears cascading down my cheeks. Somewhat embarrassed at my lack of control, I glanced quickly to my left, only to find my neighbor also in tears. A quick look to my right found that singer in a similar condition. You had led us to a place indescribable in its poignancy. I remember your spoken and written words, which helped us understand that we were part of something much larger than ourselves. I remember you saying that God was not pleased with wrong notes and that things would go much more smoothly if we would just go ahead and sing what the composer had requested. You were right.
As you know, you were often praised for your sensitivity to humankind and for your thoughtful reflections on our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us. At the same time, you were criticized for your sometimes callous treatment of individuals, a seemingly contradictory behavior considering your affection for us as a group. I recall a conversation you and I had shortly after one of those blistering attacks on a chorus member, an attack I considered unjustified. We were in one of our ‘friendly periods,’ and since I had recently performed as a soloist in an ASO subscription concert, I felt qualified to help you learn something about interpersonal communication. (You must remember, I was much younger then!) I approached you and said, “You know, Mr. Shaw, you have such an affection for humankind; it’s a shame you don’t like people very much.” I awaited your response with a bit of trepidation, but you laughed your tremendous, hearty laugh, slapped me on the back and said, “You may be right, Mike. It takes a lot of effort to be nice.”
Well, you were very generous to me that day, and I want to thank you for being kind, the very quality I had just suggested you did not possess. It’s true, you didn’t always choose the most socially acceptable way to show you cared about people. However, you showed it in more profound ways. For example, you opened my eyes, ears, heart and mind (and those of many others) to the truth and beauty of choral music. And you taught me, by example, to never give less than my all – that this art of making music deserves, even demands, our total effort. Oh yes, you cared deeply for all of us, individually and collectively. I was just unable to understand it then.
It is difficult for me to imagine now a world without your presence – leading, correcting, encouraging and chastising. But you are still with us and will continue to be, as long as we have your recorded performances of more than 50 years from which to learn, and as long as we have singers and conductors who try to pass on what they have learned from you. So, thank you, Mr. Shaw. You have enriched my life in ways I can never begin to express, and I will be grateful to you every time I study a score, lift a baton or open my mouth to sing.
Rest softly, Mr. Shaw. Softly rest.
Filed under: Choral experiences | Tagged: Atlanta Journal Constitution, B Minor Mass, choral genius, choral music, robert shaw, Symphony Hall | 7 Comments »