By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 6, 2006
Robert Shafer, music director of the Washington Chorus since 1971, will step down from that position in January. The unexpected news reached the 215 members of the ensemble in a letter from Catherine French, chairman of the Washington Chorus board.
"Our board of trustees and Bob have agreed that, following this season, he will become conductor emeritus, maintaining a guest conductor relationship with the Chorus while being relieved of the administrative and leadership responsibilities of music director," the letter read in part.
Reached Sunday at his home, Shafer, 60, sounded disappointed but philosophical. "I had requested a sabbatical," he said. "And then I was called in at the end of July and told that the sabbatical had been granted, but that they had also decided to begin searching for a new music director."
There was no advance warning. "It was a big shock," Shafer said. "But I am adjusting. I won't sever my ties. There are people in this organization with whom I've been working for decades and above all I want what we have built to go on."
Shafer began with what was then called the Oratorio Society of Washington in 1971, when he was 25 years old. Before that, he had studied at Catholic University and then went on to work with the legendary French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, whose pupils ranged from Aaron Copland and Virgil Thomson in the 1920s to Philip Glass in the 1960s. There, Shafer won first prize in composition at the Conservatoire Americain.
Under his direction, the chorus appeared regularly with the National Symphony Orchestra, including a concert performance of Mussorgsky's "Boris Godunov" under Mstislav Rostropovich. Shafer's "encyclopedic knowledge of music never ceases to astound me," Rostropovich said in 1992. In 2000, the Washington Chorus won a Grammy Award for best choral performance for its recording of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."
French emphasized that the board still wanted to work regularly with Shafer. "We love Bob, we respect him, we really look forward to continuing making music with him," she said yesterday.
So why the sudden change? "Look, there's never a perfect time for something like this," she said. "When the board considered Bob's request for a sabbatical, we started to talk about the future of the Washington Chorus and it seemed to us that this was the right time to consider a more permanent transition of leadership." A search committee is being formed, she said, and she invited "full participation from the members of the chorus. We want the Shafer tradition of excellence to continue."
Shafer will conduct holiday concerts in December as well as a Nov. 19 "Concert of Hope and Remembrance," which will feature the world premiere performance of composer Joel Puckett's "This Mourning." He will also lead what French calls "a gala celebration of his distinguished career" during the 2007-08 season and participate in the 50th-anniversary season of the Washington Chorus in 2010-11.
"We will have numerous opportunities to honor Bob for his wonderful tenure as our music director."
Shafer will continue his duties as artist-in-residence and professor of music at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va. The Shenandoah Conservatory Chorus is highly regarded and shared in the Grammy with the Washington Chorus.
"You haven't heard the last of me," Shafer said.