Robert Shaw, the extraordinary choral and orchestral conductor who occupied a central place in American musical life for more than half a century, died yesterday morning of a stroke in New Haven, Conn. He was 82 years old and lived in Atlanta.
Over the course of his long career, Shaw must have raised close to a million voices in song -- voices young and old, trained and untrained, in classrooms, churches and concert halls across the country. He was equally at home with spirituals and symphonies, with Stephen Foster melodies and Aaron Copland premieres, all of which he conducted with the same inspired -- and inspirational -- energy.
When Shaw was on the podium, he came across as somebody who had discovered exactly what he was put on the planet to do and was doing exactly that. With a motion of his hand, he could take a chorus of 15 or 500 from the tiniest of whispers to the most jubilant of shouts. His performances were remarkable for their energy, articulation and sheer sonic grandeur.
As recently as last fall, Shaw was in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where he led incandescent performances of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis" with the National Symphony Orchestra and the Cathedral Choral Society, and the Symphony No. 9 with the NSO and the Choral Arts Society of Washington. After some 35 years' exposure to the Ninth, I cannot remember having heard the choral finale sound so magnificent as it did during Shaw's final visit. It was exhilarating, never-to-be-forgotten -- big, booming, full-throated, eternally exultant yet impeccably nuanced. J. Reilly Lewis, the music director of both the Washington Bach Consort and the Cathedral Choral Society, had worked with Shaw since the 1960s, when Lewis was a student at Oberlin College. Yesterday, Lewis called Shaw "every man's musician" who, "when facing the largest of symphonic choruses, could speak in a manner that engaged us personally as individuals and built an ensemble very quickly which was far greater than the sum of its parts.
"I say he was every man's musician because even as he soared above us and inspired us and was a figure bigger than life, he also walked amongst us and would have no part of cult worship," Lewis continued. He recalled one of Shaw's favorite sayings: "Singing, like sex, is far too important to leave to the professionals."
Shaw brought a welcome American pragmatism to the high art of choral conducting. "When you are conducting a chorus, you need some metaphor, some turn of phrase, some humorous saying to put across the correct idea to your singers," he said in his last major interview, which he gave to The Washington Post last fall.
"I never try to do everything at once," he continued. "Rather, I bring in text, rhythm, dynamics and intonation one element at a time. We might sing the text on a monotone until it's fully learned. And we will rehearse at a speed where it is all but impossible for anybody to make a mistake. That way, nobody can memorize errors. If you prepare this way, you will ultimately end up with a steady, unifed, assured and beautiful sound."
In short, he took the music apart and found out how it worked, rather in the manner of the legendary little boy with the alarm clock. But there was one important difference -- when Shaw put everything back together again, it was better than ever. Robert Lawson Shaw was the son of a minister, Shirley Richard Shaw, and his wife, Nellie Mae Lawson Shaw, who was usually the leading vocalist in her husband's church choirs. Imbued with an evangelical spirit, Shirley Shaw changed pulpits so regularly that every one of his five children was born in a different California town. Robert, born in Red Bluff on April 30, 1916, was the oldest son and regularly helped his father with his musical duties. As a result, the young man was an experienced choral conductor before he was in his teens. It was Fred Waring, the enormously popular songwriter and band leader, who led Shaw into professional musicmaking. Shaw was then a member of the Pomona College Glee Club, and when Waring came to town with a variety show and invited the club to participate, he was so impressed that he offered Shaw a job.
"I said no," Shaw recalled last year. "I was studying comparative religion and English literature, and I planned to go into the ministry. But about a year later, I changed my mind, moved to New York and put together the Fred Waring Glee Club." That was in 1938. Three years later, Shaw founded his own ensemble, the Collegiate Chorale, an amateur chorus with 200 singers, which made its debut at Carnegie Hall in 1942. A few months after that, Shaw met Arturo Toscanini. "There were all sorts of stories about the Toscanini temperament," Shaw said, "but I always found him very kind and very modest. We met to prepare a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, and he seemed gloomy about the prospects. Oh, maestro,' he said -- here I am in my early twenties and Toscanini is calling me maestro! -- Oh, maestro. I've never heard a good performance of this work. The soloists are always wrong, the chorus is never quite precise, something always goes wrong.' " But Toscanini was thrilled with Shaw's preparation of the highly difficult choral music. He released a statement to the press -- "I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for" -- and worked with him whenever he could thereafter. The two men went on to record the symphony and the "Missa Solemnis" for RCA Victor (both performances are still available all these years later in vivid-sounding CD transfers).
Some of Shaw's other early performances were recorded with his own Robert Shaw Chorale, which could deliver nuanced and exciting performances of everything from Masses by Poulenc and Mozart through Broadway show tunes, Christmas carols and, of course, the hymns with which the conductor had grown up. For two decades, the Robert Shaw Chorale was the country's premier touring choral group and was sent by the State Department to 30 countries in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East and Latin America.
By the early 1950s, Shaw was without doubt the most famous of American choral conductors. He appeared regularly on radio and television and brought some of his father's evangelism to the propagation of choral music throughout the country. But he was increasingly interested in symphonic conducting as well, and held posts with the San Diego Symphony and the Cleveland Orchestra (where he served as associate conductor under George Szell). Ultimately he became the music director of the Atlanta Symphony, where he led the orchestra from 1967 to 1988. In recent years, Shaw appeared regularly as a guest conductor with orchestras throughout the world.
He was a champion of contemporary music and led first performances of works by such composers as Benjamin Britten, Samuel Barber, Charles Ives, Darius Milhaud and Philip Glass. In 1991 he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, and the following year he was awarded the National Medal of the Arts in a White House ceremony.
Off the podium, Shaw was a shy and gracious man -- welcoming, informal, good-humored and a eager raconteur. He was married to Caroline Sauls Hitz Shaw, who died in 1995. At the time of his death, Shaw was in New Haven to see a production of the play "Endgame," which was the directing and acting project of one of his sons, Thomas Lawson Shaw, who is a senior at Yale University. Perhaps the American composer Bernard Rogers said it best when he wrote: "Robert Shaw is the friend of all that is good in music. His service to music of all schools cannot be measured. It is unique, passionate and selfless. Our debt to him is very deep." CAPTION: Choral director Robert Shaw, pictured in 1983, took the music apart to see how it worked. ec CAPTION: Robert Shaw in 1949: With a motion of his hand, he could take a chorus from the tiniest whisper to the most jubilant shout. ec