A Musical Reprise for Robert Shafer

Ousted Washington Chorus director Robert Shafer will lead a new 90-voice choir.
Ousted Washington Chorus director Robert Shafer will lead a new 90-voice choir. (Washington Chorus)
By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 1, 2007

A year after his surprise dismissal from the leadership of the Washington Chorus, which he had conducted for more than three decades, Robert Shafer has been named artistic director of the City Choir of Washington, a new 90-voice chorus that will make its debut this fall.

The group's first concert -- a performance of Handel's exuberant oratorio "Solomon" -- will take place Nov. 16 at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria. There will be two further appearances in its inaugural season: "A Baroque Christmas" on Dec. 21, also at Schlesinger, and, on April 17, 2008, a presentation of the "Vespers of 1610" by Claudio Monteverdi at the Music Center at Strathmore.

Shafer's departure from the Washington Chorus was announced to the 215 members of that ensemble over Labor Day weekend last year in the form of a letter from board Chairman Catherine French announcing that Shafer would be stepping down. Shafer immediately made it known that his departure was not voluntary.

Over the past year, opinion within the Washington Chorus about Shafer's removal has been bitterly divided, and at least two dozen members left the group. Rumors of a new ensemble to be headed by Shafer were abundant almost from the start, although nobody was willing to speak on the record until yesterday.

The City Choir of Washington will be a volunteer chorus with no dues. Kathryn Tidyman, president of the choir's board, described it yesterday as "a chorus for the people, by the people."

Shafer was not available to comment, but he said in a statement that it would be "tremendously satisfying to work with the members of the City Choir of Washington. These men and women, from all walks of life, were chosen for their voices and extensive choral experience. But they also share a dedication to a single goal: to bring the very highest level of artistry to our performances of the great choral masterworks."

Shafer began his work with the Washington Chorus -- 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 in France with the legendary 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. In 2000, the Washington Chorus won a Grammy Award for best choral performance for its recording of Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem."

"We wish Robert Shafer and his new choral organization the very best," French said in a statement yesterday. "With increased choral activity in the area, the real beneficiaries are the enthusiastic audiences for choral music for which Washington is so well-known."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company