The Man Who Gave Choral Music a Good Name

Robert Shaw talks about the improved quality of singing and what drew him to conduct

'DON'T race for the barn yet - OK, now you can smell the stable.''

Using his trademark blend of humor and profundity, Robert Shaw, America's reigning dean of music, is guiding a packed house at Boston University's Tsai Performance Center through a series of vocal warm-ups in preparation for a sing-in of Brahms's luminous and difficult ''Requiem.''

With no theatrics, no grandstanding, and no condescension toward the largely amateur group, he rehearses as if working with his own legendary chorus, cautioning and cajoling, urging forward and pulling back. In a matter of minutes, he has the enthusiastic crowd of nearly 500 eating out of his hand.

It is a scene Mr. Shaw has played out innumerable times on various levels all around the world. More than any other single person, Robert Shaw has been and continues to be the guiding light of choral music. Through recordings, personal appearances, and a variety of educational endeavors, he has made an impact on virtually everyone interested in the art of choral singing. During a career spanning more than six decades, he has been a primary inspiration and a driving force behind the transformation of choral music into one of the arts' most solid communal events.

Shaw is as gracious in an interview as he is from the podium. Wearing the trademark dark-blue shirt and pants that have become his uniform, he is vigorous and loquacious, one moment espousing the most eloquent of insights, the next diving into an anecdote from the past. And though he downplays his impact on the musical life of America, he will admit, ''That's really for others to say, but ... I would guess I've had a fair amount of influence.''

Despite a solid number of professional choruses at work today, the field is actually dominated by volunteer groups willing to work long hours for little or no recompense, presumably for the pure joy of singing with others. ''A major part of life is spent looking for community,'' Shaw believes. ''The fact that people can reach the extraordinary intellectual precocity of great music, and experience its beauty and ethical integrity by singing together with 50 or 100 other people, that's an extraordinary thing.

''The physical act of singing undoubtedly delights people. They find themselves expressing things that they couldn't express by themselves soloistically. Everyone realizes you are doing something that is unavailable to you as an individual.... Singing together with the quality of literature now available brings everybody a delight in community without any loss of individuality and self-respect. You're doing something that only enobles everybody.''

Shaw says that the popularity of choral singing, from church choirs to amateur choruses, is twofold. ''First, it provides immediate access to really great creative minds of the past. You can begin with a Bach chorale and find as rich harmonies as one can get. Secondly, it's the most satisfying community enterprise at a time when both political and ecclesiastical structures have largely lost their power. They make it almost impossible to belong without leaving some of your intellectual and ethical aspirations at home.''

With his thoughtful philosophical bent, it is not surprising that Shaw has degrees in comparative religion and literature, not music. His family background was heavily evangelical Protestantism - both his father and his grandfather were ministers, and he and his four siblings spent much of their childhood singing and playing in churches around his native southern California.

For most of his youth, he seemed destined for either a life in the church or one in politics. But in 1938, while Shaw was conducting the Pomona College Glee Club, he came to the attention of Fred Waring, who happened to be making a film on campus.

The popular singer-conductor was so impressed by Shaw that he asked him to help form a chorale in New York City. When the Fred Waring Singers became an unmitigated success, Shaw's mission in music seemed sealed. ''Music, in a sense, became a substitute for things that disappointed me in religion and politics,'' he says. ''I'm grateful that music saved me from the ministry or public service.''

Waring's group and Roger Wagner's West Coast ensemble began to spread the popularity of group singing, and the standards for professional choruses began to rise. During that time, Shaw also prepared choruses for such renowned conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter.

Shaw started his own group, the Collegiate Chorale, in 1941. After the war, Shaw formed a professional ensemble, the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, and began major touring around the country. Over the next 17 years, the group was sent to more than 30 countries through the auspices of the US State Department, becoming America's premier touring choral ensemble. Shaw and the group also won four Grammy Awards.

Shaw himself expanded his horizons considerably when he began working with orchestras. He was the conductor of the San Diego Symphony in the '50s, associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1956 to '67, and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he built into a world-class organization, from 1967 to '88. He still lives in Atlanta and remains conductor laureate with the orchestra.

Shaw credits the tremendous surge of interest in choral singing over the past 50 years with the body of great choral literature made available from European libraries after World War II. ''This has allowed an extraordinary growth of technical competency,'' Shaw says. ''A Texas high school chorus that once would have done folk songs and spirituals can now do a Brahms 'Requiem.' ''

There also has been a more rigorous approach to the training of choral conductors, something again largely owing to Shaw's own educational dedication. ''Choral conductors used to conduct the way one would lead cheers,'' Shaw recalls, ''and anyone could be a choir director. Now there are strenuous studies that include a vast range of repertoire and a more advanced technique.''

One of the activities closest to Shaw's heart is the Robert Shaw Institute, which he and his late wife, Caroline, founded near their summer home in Souillac, France. Upon Caroline's death last year, Shaw decided to move the institute to the United States, and this summer it will be held in Park City, Utah, near Salt Lake City. The institute's aim is to foster excellence in the choral arts through a wide variety of activities geared mostly to professional and semi-professional singers and conductors.

In April, Shaw enters his eighth decade of life, and the occasion is being celebrated in New York with three major performances. It began in January with a concert of Verdi choral masterpieces as part of Carnegie Hall's sixth annual Robert Shaw Professional Training Workshops. In April, he will conduct Bach's ''St. Matthew Passion'' at Carnegie Hall with the Atlanta Symphony Chamber Chorus and the Orchestra of St. Luke's. And on May 2, he will lead the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers in an a cappella performance of Rachmaninoff's ''Vespers'' at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

At a time when many would be resting on their laurels, Shaw seems to be in high gear. But as befits a man who considers music to be a calling, Shaw is modest about his role. ''The business of the conductor is to get out of the way of the composer, rather than interpose himself.... Music is ultimately an art of collaboration, not personal showmanship. Even at the moment of a cappella singing, one is obliged to remember that somebody else wrote the song.''

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