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Robert Shaw Documentary Brings Conductor’s Centenary to a Crescendo

  • Robert Shaw Chorus

    Robert Shaw at work. Photo courtesy Robert Shaw, The Film.

Having moved to Atlanta just after Robert Shaw’s tenure as Music Director and Conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, I was aware of the long shadow he cast but didn’t fully grasp his achievements. The legend’s would-be 100th birthday is the perfect opportunity for a refresher course, and “Robert Shaw- Man of Many Voices” serves as an ideal primer. The documentary, which was almost entirely locally funded, premieres at Symphony Hall on Sunday, April 24. The afternoon program includes three brief choir performances, an appropriate nod to the choral music for which he was perhaps best known.

Shaw was already a renowned figure when he arrived in Atlanta in 1967. In New York, his wartime Collegiate Chorale had blazed trails as one of the first integrated musical ensembles, and that resolve was again called upon in the turbulent late ’60s South. “Shaw was not a civil rights activist per se, but if you were talented, you were in his ensemble,” says Kiki Wilson, the film’s executive producer and herself a 30-year ASO Chorus veteran. “He never really spoke to the issue until he had to in Atlanta.”

Few in the music world understood why Shaw would uproot from a successful stint in Cleveland for Atlanta, then considered a musical outpost. However, he saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild an arts community in the wake of 1964’s Orly tragedy, and it’s not a stretch to say Shaw’s popularity helped establish the Woodruff Arts Center.

Robert Shaw. Photo courtesy Robert Shaw, The Film.
Robert Shaw. Photo courtesy Robert Shaw, The Film.

One of the first voices heard in “Man of Many Voices” is that of Andrew Young. He’s soon joined by iconic Georgians both musical (Robert Spano, Donald Runnicles) and political (Jimmy Carter), plus national figures like cellist Yo Yo Ma weighing in on Shaw’s impact. Narration is provided by David Hyde Pierce, the Broadway actor best known for his TV role on “Frasier” but a man with his own musical pedigree. “He became a real friend of the film,” according to Wilson, actually agreeing to the role for less than he was offered.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Shaw’s musical biography is that he was self-taught, a fact that presumably pushed him to excel. “Until the last couple of years of his life, he was very insecure,” says Wilson. Shaw was a contemporary of Leonard Bernstein but never cut the same public figure. “Bernstein was articulate; Shaw stammered,” she recalls.

Nonetheless, by the time Shaw’s ASO tenure was up, he had logged 16 Grammys, the first-ever classical Gold album, and staged a groundbreaking 1988 European tour extending into pre-unification East Berlin. Such vision rarely comes without turmoil. “He was fired twice by the board,” says Wilson, a twist the film also addresses. Fortunately, reconciliations ensued in both cases.

“Robert Shaw – Man of Many Voices” is compelling storytelling as well as a fitting tribute to a complex classical music treasure.

 

 

Glen Sarvady

Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.

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