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Robert Shaw Centenary

April 30, 2016, marks the centenary of the birth of the legendary American conductor and choral director Robert Shaw (1916–1999). On that date, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and Music Director Robert Spano perform at Carnegie Hall. For more than half a century, Shaw—the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director from 1967–1988—was a frequent, inspiring creative presence in New York’s legendary concert venue.

Robert Shaw was 26 when, on October 16, 1942, he made his Carnegie Hall headline conducting debut. The Artists’ Front to Win the War Concert, hosted by Orson Welles, featured Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale, as well as numerous speakers, including Charlie Chaplin and Lillian Hellman. Over the following decade, Shaw, the Collegiate Chorale, and later, the Robert Shaw Chorale, appeared often at Carnegie Hall. In addition to several Christmas concerts, Shaw led programs that juxtaposed familiar masterworks with compositions by favored contemporaries. A concert on May 19, 1947, placed the Mozart Mass in C Minor alongside the New York premieres of Hindemith’s Apparebit repentina dies and Copland’s In the Beginning. World premieres at Carnegie Hall conducted by Shaw during this period included Charles Faulkner Bryan’s The Bell Witch (1947); Charles Ives’s Three Harvest Home Chorales (1948); Peter Mennin’s Symphony No. 4, “The Cycle” (1949); Jacob Avshalomov’s Tom O’Bedlam and Ernest Bacon’s Five Fables with Music (1953); and numerous first US and New York performances.

Toscanini deemed Shaw the finest choral director with whom he had ever worked.

Shaw also prepared the Robert Shaw Chorale for Carnegie Hall concerts with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957). The Toscanini-NBC programs at Carnegie Hall, broadcast nationwide and recorded by RCA, included the Verdi Te Deum and Requiem (1951), the Beethoven Ninth Symphony (1952) and Missa solemnis (1953), selections from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera (1954), and the Prologue from Arrigo Boito’s opera Mefistofele (1954). Shaw treasured the opportunity to collaborate and study with the legendary Italian maestro, a man who had met Verdi and discussed the interpretation of his music. For his part, Toscanini deemed Shaw the finest choral director with whom he had ever worked.

Shaw was captivated by Toscanini’s untiring, perfectionist commitment to the music and the maestro’s humility when confronting the challenges of interpreting the greatest masterworks. In a conversation with music critic B. H. Haggin, Shaw recalled discussing the Beethoven Ninth with Toscanini, who told the young conductor: “You know, I have never had a good performance of this work. Sometimes the chorus is bad; sometimes the orchestra is bad; many times the soloists are bad. And many times I am terrible.” Working with Toscanini did much to shape Shaw’s philosophy of musical collaboration. In a letter dated September 19, 1991, to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (reprinted in Keith C. Burris’s 2013 biography, Deep River), Shaw described Toscanini in a manner that applied with equal force to his own approach: “Dictatorship? Phooey! Nonsense! Artists played with Toscanini, not for him.”

Photo by Chris Lee

In addition to appearances at Carnegie Hall with his own ensembles, Shaw conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and Orchestra of St. Luke’s. An April 13, 1992, performance of Handel’s Messiah with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s commemorated the 250th anniversary of the oratorio’s premiere. The last of the Shaw-Cleveland concerts at Carnegie Hall, on May 5, 1995, was a stunning performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8—often call the “Symphony of a Thousand”—with members of the Cincinnati May Festival Chorus, The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, Oberlin College Choir, American Boychoir, and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus placed throughout the auditorium.

During the early years of his tenure as music director of the Atlanta Symphony, Shaw formed the all-volunteer Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus (and Chamber Chorus). Under his leadership, they gained national and international recognition through concert performances and recordings. On March 4, 1971, Shaw led the Atlanta Symphony in the orchestra’s Carnegie Hall debut. In all, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Shaw performed a dozen concerts at Carnegie Hall. The programming embodied Shaw’s philosophy during his Atlanta years. Choral works by Beethoven, Verdi, Berlioz, and Brahms, and the traditional European orchestral repertoire were cornerstones. But works by American composers William Schuman, Charles Ives, Karel Husa, Ned Rorem, and John Harbison were prominent as well. The Shaw Centennial Concert on April 30, 2016—with its New York premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff’s Zohar and the Brahms Ein deutsches Requiem—recalls the Shaw-Atlanta program at Carnegie Hall on April 5, 1980, which also featured the Brahms, and Philip Rhodes’s The Lament of Michal (a New York premiere).

Shaw’s last Carnegie Hall concert with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra was on May 25, 1988. Two years later, he embarked upon a new venture, the brainchild of Judith Arron, Carnegie Hall’s Executive and Artistic Director from 1986–1998. The Robert Shaw Choral Workshops—intense weeklong exploration and rehearsals of masterworks—culminated in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall. The Choral Workshops and culminating concerts focused on works by Haydn, Beethoven, Berlioz, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Brahms, Hindemith, and Britten.

Witness sessions of Carnegie Hall’s Robert Shaw Choral Workshop, Volume 1,
which features rehearsals and performance excerpts of Brahms's Ein deutsches Requiem.


After the first Robert Shaw Choral Workshop Concert on November 18, 1990 (a performance of Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem), Bernard Holland wrote in The New York Times that the performance was “proof of what a gathering of choral directors, orchestra conductors, music administrators, and singers had learned under Robert Shaw during five days of seminars and rehearsals.” Holland continued: “The afternoon was much more: indeed, one of the more powerful communications between musician and listener that this reviewer has experienced in the past 10 years.” This was a sentiment echoed by all who had the privilege of attending the Shaw Choral Workshops and Concerts.

Failing health prevented Shaw from leading the 1999 Choral Workshop and the subsequent concert on January 17, including settings of the Stabat mater by Verdi, Szymanowski, and Poulenc. On January 25, 1999, Shaw died at the age of 82. Shaw’s final concert at Carnegie Hall had taken place the previous April 3. The sole work on the program was one central to the life and career of Robert Shaw: Bach’s Mass in B Minor. On this occasion, Shaw collaborated with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chamber Chorus—treasured colleagues during the latter part of his career. Shaw once commented, “If there is a heaven—and a God—the Mass in B Minor would surely be God’s favorite music.” And with this sublime music, two American icons—Carnegie Hall and Robert Shaw—bid farewell.

—Ken Meltzer is the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s program annotator.

Robert Spano
Monday, February 23 at 8 PM
Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

When Robert Spano conducted Britten’s War Requiem at Carnegie Hall in 2014, The New York Times called it a “gripping, organic, and sensitive performance,” and praised the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for its “rich, varied colorings.” Spano and the orchestra return to Carnegie Hall for the New York premiere of Jonathan Leshnoff's Zohar, commissioned to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of choral giant Robert Shaw and to honor his ties to the Atlanta Symphony and Carnegie Hall. The concert concludes with Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem, in which the composer eschews fire and brimstone in this very personal work with texts from the Old and New Testaments of the Lutheran Bible. Gorgeous solo passages for soprano and baritone and heartfelt choral writing makes Ein deutsches Requiem a tender and unforgettable masterpiece.

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