Sunday, November 10, 2013

Robert Shaw, choral conductor

I felt it was necessary to add "choral conductor" to Robert Shaw's name in the title, since when you Google "Robert Shaw" you invariably get the late great actor known for "Jaws", "The Sting", or "From Russia with Love".  But this post is about Robert Shaw, the choral conductor.

But he was so much MORE than that:  Shaw was a choral innovator.  And I attribute this to the fact that he did not receive a formal education in choral conducting, or any formal musical education.  He was actually studying to be a pastor.  But he had within him the love of music, particularly choral music, that had been  instilled in him by his parents.  I often feel that many who do study formally get locked into their instructor's ideology of how to perform, and then they never really deviate from that.  Of course, many do not: they go on to a self-inspired level of excellence, and then THEY become the new instructors and innovators.  But Shaw was, from the outset, an innovator.  His path was simple: singing as a child and youth, then in the Glee Club at college, then leading the Glee Club, then discovery by one of the renowned choir directors of that time.  That led to his forming his own choir, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and finally, discovered by the exacting Arturo Toscannini, for whom he prepared a choir for the famed and demanding maestro.  Shaw went on to Cleveland under the great George Szell, then to his own fame in San Diego and finally Atlanta.  But it was Shaw's grasp of digital recording and the new media of the 80's, CDs, that fully brought his masterful choral approach to the general public, even though he was known and widely respected by the musical, and particularly, the choral world.

As I have mentioned, Shaw was an innovator.  As I have listened to his recordings over countless hours, I have heard things that seemed to me to be unique amongst other choral recordings I have listened to.  For one thing, Shaw was first and foremost a choral director, and approached even his orchestral work with choral sensibilities.  For example, his phrasing and expressiveness of the Atlanta Symphony is almost choral-like, with definitive areas of "breathing" and arching phrases.  And when you listen to a Shaw recording of any major choral work, it is first a CHORAL work with the orchestra in a supporting role.  Many choral recordings by noted and brilliant conductors, with rare exception, don't do that.  In addition, as I have listened more and more I have heard things that are so subtle, yet had to have been carefully and meticulously rehearsed by Shaw.  As an example, I started to hear how sustained notes of any value (1/2 or whole notes) seemed to be energized at the beginning of the note, then taper off that energy ever-so-slightly as the note ended.  However, it never lost the overall energy or volume.  It was like a gentle swell on the ocean that comes and pushes the boat slightly, but never rocks it, so it's barely perceptible.  When I had the chance to discuss this with a former Atlanta Chorus member, she said he did use a technique that he called elliptical, where the note is arched, just like phrasing is arched.  I am not sure if other choral directors have adapted this subtle technique, but from my limited professional experience, I know it wasn't rehearsed in the choirs I've sung with.  So, to me, this illustrates one of Shaw's choral innovations.

Shaw was also an innovator in the dawning of the digital recording and CD age, taking home multiple Grammy awards for his Atlanta chorus recordings on the Telarc label.  These were awarded not only for the technical mastery of the Telarc engineers, who took choral, organ and orchestral recording to places it had never been before, but also for the musicianship of the ASO and the Chorus, and Shaw himself.  Shaw embraced the new digital technology and created masterwork recordings of not only the "standards" such as the Brahms' "German Requiem" but also little-known works by Hindemith and other 20th century composers.  Even after he retired from the ASO, he began a long association with Ohio State University and the Quercy Institute in France, producing wonderful intimate recordings of Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Britten and works of Ravel, Debussy and Argento.  He returned to Atlanta on occasion to record and perform with the chorus and orchestra he'd nurtured.

Shaw was the champion of not only the choral masterworks of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, but he commissioned works by Bernstein and championed American composers, a concept that continues with the large choral groups in Los Angeles and here in Orange County, but also with the smaller groups as well, such as the Choral Arts Initiative, a new and exciting group made of young, highly trained singers.

Shaw's legacy cannot be underestimated, and for those of us who have a passion for choral music, his is a powerful influence.  For me, as a choral musician, I cannot fathom the technique he used, but I have studied papers on his warm up techniques, and have chatted with a few singers who were with him and verified certain of his concepts that he'd utilize in rehearsal.  But mostly I try, as a singer and a burgeoning choral conductor, to try to establish a choral sound that is a blend of what I've heard in Shaw's recordings, tempered with my personal experiences singing, with the ultimate goal of achieving the unity of choral sound that he established: smooth crystal sopranos, verdant altos, bright but not loud tenors and rich, deep, but not buzzing basses.  Every choral piece I hear I do so through the ears of my own Shaw experience.

Soli deo Gloria.


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