January 25, 1999|
Robert Shaw, Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, died at 2:05 AM today at the age of 82. He was at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, on Saturday to see the play Endgame, which was his son Thomas’s senior directing and acting project, when he suffered a massive stroke.
Renowned as America’s greatest conductor of choral music, Mr. Shaw came to Atlanta in 1967 to become Music Director and Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. During his 21 years in that capacity, the ASO grew from a part-time, part-year regional ensemble to become a full-time, year-round orchestra, recognized internationally for its excellence. He led it on tours across the United States, including a 1971 Carnegie Hall debut that became the first of many ASO appearances in that prestigious space. He took the ASO and its Chorus to Washington in 1977 to perform at the Inaugural Concert for President-elect Jimmy Carter, and he led both ensembles on an acclaimed concert tour of Europe in 1988.
The 200-voice Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and the smaller ASO Chamber Chorus were his creations. Both were trained to the perfection he demanded and continue to be an important part of the ASO’s musical programs -- at home in Atlanta on a regular basis and occasionally on tour as well. The excellence of the ASO Chorus under his direction has been recognized by six Grammy awards for Best Choral performance and by the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Arts.
Retirement as the ASO’s Music Director in 1988 did not bring any lessening of Mr. Shaw’s musical activities. As he cut back on his ASO conducting appearances, he was freed to accept more guest engagements and to focus on realizing a cherished dream, the Robert Shaw Choral Institute. Concentrating, for the first time in 21 years, on choral literature without orchestral accompaniment, he conducted a landmark series of summer festivals in the south of France (and more recently in Greenville, South Carolina) and made a number of recordings with his Robert Shaw Festival Singers. In Atlanta his Robert Shaw Chamber Singers gave an acclaimed series of concerts at Spivey Hall and also made recordings.
Another remarkable development of recent years was Mr. Shaw’s association with New York’s Carnegie Hall, whose annual Robert Shaw Choral Workshops drew choral directors and singers from across the nation for week-long sessions of preparation and study, culminating in performances received with both acclaim and affection. His many other Carnegie Hall concerts included a performance of Handel’s Messiah on the 250th anniversary of the work’s premiere and, on his own 80th birthday, performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, the ASO Chorus and other choral groups. With singers both on stage and ranged around the hall in two tiers of box seats, the number of performers came close to equaling that of the audience.
Robert Lawson Shaw was born in Red Bluff, California, on April 30, 1916. As he liked to remind listeners at his frequent speaking engagements, he came from a line of evangelical preachers, and the family often sang gospel hymns around his mother’s piano. Destined for the ministry himself, he majored in religion and philosophy at Pomona College. He was also a student conductor of the college’s glee club, which brought him to the attention of radio entertainer Fred Waring. Waring brought the young Shaw to New York and assigned him to form and conduct the Fred Waring Glee Club in weekly broadcasts.
Finding his Waring-related activities dealing almost exclusively with popular music, Mr. Shaw began looking for a classical outlet. In 1941 he formed the Collegiate Chorale, an all-volunteer chorus. Quickly noticed for its high standards and its racially integrated membership (“a melting pot that sings”), the group not only sang traditional masterpieces, but also worked with living composers, presenting premiere performances of many new works. The Chorale eventually came to the notice of Arturo Toscanini, revered conductor of the NBC Symphony, who invited it to perform Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with his orchestra. After attending a Shaw rehearsal, Toscanini remarked, “I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for.”
In 1949 he formed the Robert Shaw Chorale, which for two decades reigned as America’s premier touring choral group and was sent by the U.S. State Department to 30 countries in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Latin America. The Shaw Chorale began recording as the chorus for opera recordings and then branched out with numerous LP records of its own, in music ranging from Broadway and folk favorites to the great milestones of the classical choral literature. With these recordings, Mr. Shaw won the first four of his 14 Grammy awards. During this period, he also worked to perfect his orchestral conducting, serving as Music Director of the San Diego Symphony for four years and then as Associate Conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, working closely with George Szell for eleven years before accepting his appointment with the Atlanta Symphony.
Throughout his career, Mr. Shaw received abundant recognition for his work. His honors include degrees and citations from 40 U.S. colleges and universities, England’s Gramophone Award, a Gold Record for the first RCA classical recording to sell more than a million copies, four ASCAP Awards for service to contemporary music, the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a conductor, the Alice M. Ditson Award for service to contemporary music, the George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America, and the Gold Baton Award of the American Symphony Orchestra League for distinguished service to music and the arts.
He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts, and he was a 1991 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors, the nation’s highest honor to artists “who, through a lifetime of accomplishment, have enriched American life by their achievement in the performing arts.” The following year he was awarded the National Medal of Arts in a White House ceremony. He was the 1993 recipient of the Conductors’ Guild Theodore Thomas Award, in recognition of outstanding life achievement in conducting as well as his contributions to the education and training of young conductors. In 1997, the French government awarded him its medal as “Officier des Arts et des Lettres.”
Last September, Mr. Shaw was Guest Artistic Director at the Kennedy Center for the National Symphony Orchestra’s two-week Beethoven Festival, leading performances of the Missa solemnis, Choral Fantasy and Ninth Symphony. Immediately thereafter, he was called to step in for the ailing Seiji Ozawa to conduct the Ninth Symphony for the gala opening concert of the Boston Symphony’s season. In October he was inducted in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
Mr. Shaw is survived by his sister, Mrs. Harrison Price of San Pedro, California; his brother, John Shaw of Baldwin Park, California; his children, Dr. Johanna Shaw of Providence, Rhode Island, and Nantucket, Massachusetts; Peter Thain Shaw of Portland, Oregon; John Thaddeus Shaw of Lathrop, California; Thomas Lawson Shaw of Atlanta and Yale University; and stepson Alexander Crawford Hitz of Atlanta and New York City.
There will be a private graveside service, and the family will receive friends and well-wishers on Thursday afternoon, January 28, from 4:00 to 6:00 PM, at H. M. Patterson & Son, Spring Hill. The ASO will host a public celebration of his life and legacy in Atlanta Symphony Hall this Friday at 2:00 PM. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial contributions to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and/or Carnegie Hall.