The Legacy of Robert Shaw, Music Director (1967–1988)


For twenty-one years Robert Shaw served at the artistic helm of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

When he arrived in Atlanta in August 1967, he found the ASO already in the midst of an effort to upgrade itself. Atlanta’s cultural leaders had long been working toward raising the Orchestra’s budget, extending the length of its season and building a permanent hall for its performances. They turned to Shaw because he was both a musician of international stature in both orchestral and choral realms and a rising conductor who could bring the ASO to prominence as his own reputation grew.

He came in like a whirlwind, presenting ambitious concerts of difficult music, speaking about Atlanta’s need for a conservatory of music, looking for black musicians to play in the all-white orchestra, successfully lobbying to have black members added to the ASO’s Board, and introducing the city to more contemporary music than it had ever heard before. Hard though he may have driven his players and singers, he pushed himself harder. His attention to detail and his capacity for endless hours of score study and preparation were phenomenal. Unlike most high-profile conductors, he had no other orchestra half a globe away, and he accepted few dates to conduct elsewhere. Shaw had come to Atlanta to be Music Director, and he considered it a full-time commitment.

Shaw immediately began his efforts at expansion and outreach. In addition to continuing the main subscription series and the Suburban Series at Westminster School, he inaugurated a Chamber Series to present works for smaller ensembles, a Connoisseur Series at Emory University, and a Promenade Series of lighter fare. He took the Orchestra for a week-long Festival of Contemporary Music, much of it by black composers, at Spelman College.

The Shaw Years
He also began the ASO Chamber Chorus in order to enhance the choral offerings of the Orchestra. He turned Chamber Chorus rehearsals into seminars on vocal technique and choral conducting methods, with academic credit available through Georgia State University. Incorporating some of the area’s finest voices, both amateur and professional, the all-volunteer Chamber Chorus made its debut with the Schubert Mass in G Major. At Christmas it joined the ASO to offer Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, and a Promenade Series concert became the first of the Orchestra’s traditional Family Christmas Festivals, with participation by three hundred choristers and bell ringers. Other choral highlights of the season were the performances of Honegger’s King David with Emory choral forces and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis with the Chamber Chorus, the Choral Guild and an Atlanta Intercollegiate Chorus of students from seven local colleges and universities.

Shaw’s opening season brought a raise in pay for musicians, expansion of the subscription series from 14 to 18 concerts and lengthening of the playing season from 26 to 30 weeks. The following season, further expansion and increased salaries made it possible for the first time to institute daytime rehearsals and to regard playing in the ASO as full-time employment. The ensuing years saw the ASO become a year-round orchestra, its schedule based upon a Master Season of 24 subscription-concert weekends. Musicians’ pay continued to increase, enhancing the Orchestra’s ability to attract and retain notable players. The roster was increased by several positions. The organization heeded Shaw’s early pleas for better instruments by purchasing some of them directly and setting up loan funds to help players obtain others.

During his first season, Shaw spearheaded the drive to raise one million dollars in order to qualify for a matching Ford Foundation grant of 1.75 million dollars. A portion of that began the ASO’s endowment fund, which continues to grow as the foundation of the Orchestra’s financial security.

The Shaw Years
The initial season set the tone for the Robert Shaw era to follow. Its emphases persisted and widened. The Chamber Series evolved to the point of sending ASO performing groups into Atlanta schools. The Connoisseur Series continued on a less formalized basis, as Shaw maintained his commitment to performing at Atlanta colleges. The Suburban Series and the first year’s touring grew into an extensive list of out-of-town concerts. Shaw and his conducting staff regularly led the Orchestra in locations throughout Georgia and the Southeastern region, supported by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. National touring began in 1970, and subsequent years drew Shaw and the ASO to Western states, to Chicago and the Midwest, and repeatedly to the Northeast and New York City. In 1980 he took the ASO to Mexico for a four-concert residency at the National University.

Crowning his period of leadership was the ASO’s first concert tour of Europe, preceded by concerts in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. The ASO and Chorus became the largest performing arts group ever to travel from the USA to Europe. Greeted with tears and standing ovations, concerts were given in East Berlin, Zürich, Ludwigsburg, Paris and the Bath Music Festival, climaxing with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at London’s Royal Festival Hall.

The initial Promenade Series, too, expanded in size and importance. Light classics came to figure in the Coffee and Champagne Concerts. Free summer offerings at city parks brought classical music to huge audiences. Pops fare grew into a summer-long schedule of 30 concerts with top entertainers at Chastain Park. Knowing that Atlanta could do better still, Shaw spoke repeatedly of the need for a well-designed summer facility where music of lasting worth could be performed.

Robert Shaw never ceased insisting that excellence in the fine arts, and great music in particular, exerts an enriching and improving influence on everyone. His programs returned constantly to the works of the Classical era of Haydn and Mozart, both for their musical value and because they are great trainers of instrumental and ensemble skills within the orchestra. He was generous with selections from the Romantic era, the monumental and much-loved works from Beethoven through Brahms and beyond to Sibelius and Rachmaninov.

He was also unflinching in presenting the music of our own time, not just the now-familiar sounds of Mahler and Prokofiev, but representatives of the latest trends and experiments. In his first speech to the ASO Board of Sponsors, he affirmed his intention to commit a portion of his programming to “that sound of this moment upon which one has no right or means of exercising a judgement: the absolutely absurd, experimental, unconventional, uncensored, inconceivable, unbearable anti-music.”

His first seasons included Theater Set by Ulysses Kay, which he had commissioned with funds from the Junior League of Atlanta, as well as works by Penderecki, Schoenberg, Webern, Lutosławski, Ligeti and Gunther Schuller, among other contemporary composers. A portion of the Symphony’s audience resented such programming, and matters came to a head when Shaw scheduled ten works by Charles Ives, celebrating the composer’s 100th anniversary, during his fifth season. In February of 1972 his resignation was requested by the Executive Committee of the ASO Board, sparking a furor within Atlanta’s cultural community. A phenomenal grass-roots campaign collected 3,500 subscription checks for the next Shaw season, insuring that he would remain as Music Director.

The years that followed brought another year-long retrospective (1979-1980), this time of works by Alberto Ginastera, and a spring festival of concerts devoted to Bartók and Beethoven (1981). Under the American Music Project, Shaw commissioned a total of 15 new works from American composers, including Bernstein, Schuman and Menotti, with premieres extending from 1984 through 1992. Every season brought first ASO performances of anywhere from 15 to 30 musical works.

Throughout his career, Shaw was known for his commitment to racial equality and to broadening opportunities for minority musicians in the classical field. Under his leadership, the ASO actively sought black and other minority instrumentalists for vacancies in the Orchestra. During the 1980s the Atlanta Symphony participated in the Music Assistance Fund’s “Orchestra Fellows Program,” designed to help rising black string players gain the experience for successful symphonic careers. At the front of the stage, many black soloists, both instrumental and vocal, performed with the ASO. His commitment was further reflected in his full staging in 1972 of the world premiere of Scott Joplin’s opera Treemonisha, in his frequent work with glee clubs from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, in his leading the ASO at the inaugural ceremony for Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, and in his commissioning of new music by composers such as Frederick Tillis, Billy Taylor, John Lewis, T.J. Anderson and Alvin Singleton. Anderson and Singleton were also chosen by Shaw to be Composers in Residence with the ASO.

With Robert Shaw at the helm, the Orchestra’s choral music naturally grew in importance and excellence. To the Chamber Chorus he added the larger ASO Chorus in 1970, supervising the recruitment, auditioning and training of more than 200 volunteer singers and conducting their debut in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Whether entrusting the weekly training of the Choruses to assistants or assuming the duties himself, he always encouraged and inspired his singers with his own insights into technique, musical discipline and compositional greatness, and his Choruses consistently reaped high praise for their performances.

Highlights of the collaboration of the Chorus and Chamber Chorus with the ASO under Shaw included a Carnegie Hall debut in 1976, featured status in the inaugural Concert for President Jimmy Carter in 1977, hosting additional guest choruses for mammoth performances of Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” in 1978 and 1991, returning to Carnegie Hall for a series of three great Requiems during Easter weekend in 1980, and participation in most of the ASO’s award-winning recordings. The Chorus also performed in Carnegie Hall with other orchestras under Shaw’s baton for Mahler’s Eighth Symphony in 1995 and the Brahms German Requiem in 1997.

Shaw’s first Atlanta recording was “Nativity,” containing selections from the Christmas Festival of 1975. Two years later Telarc Records released the first commercial orchestra recording made with the new digital process: Robert Shaw conducting the ASO and Chorus in music by Stravinsky and Borodin. Winner of an Audio Excellence Award and a Grammy nomination, the record began a fruitful and ongoing relationship between Shaw, the ASO and Telarc. The collaboration produced 18 Grammy awards for orchestral and choral recordings, beginning with Grammies for “Best Classical Album” and “Best Choral Performance” in 1986 for the Berlioz Requiem, and including 1999 Grammies in the same two categories for the CD of choral works by Barber, Bartók and Vaughan Williams. One final Shaw/Atlanta recording remains to be released next autumn by Telarc: the Dvořák Stabat Mater.

As Music Director of the ASO, Shaw won the ASCAP Award four times for adventuresome programming of contemporary music, and he twice received the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Arts. His ASO Chorus also won the award as a group in 1989. Medals and citations came to him from a variety of institutions and organizations, along with numerous honorary degrees.

Interest in Shaw’s skill and insight in working with choruses continued to be widespread. Several times a year at various schools he conducted workshops of one or two weeks in choral technique and interpretation, always culminating in performances with orchestra of the works under study. Dear People . . . Robert Shaw, a 1979 biography by Joseph A Mussulman that was revised and updated in 1996, looked in depth at his early career and shed much light on the Atlanta years. A television special for WAGA, Shaw Prepares, covered rehearsals and an ASO performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The Fulton County Arts Council produced The Art of Robert Shaw in 1985, highlighted by glimpses of his methods at the ASO. Beginning in 1990, his annual Choral Workshops at Carnegie Hall were also documented on videotape.

Radio broadcasts of Shaw’s performances with the ASO increased steadily. For over two decades, WABE-FM has carried all Master Season concerts. The Orchestra’s 1986 Carnegie Hall concert was broadcast nationally on the series Carnegie Hall Tonight. National Public Radio celebrated Shaw’s ASO career by broadcasting many of his performances with the Orchestra and Chorus, including a weeklong series of evening programs dedicated to his words and music last fall.

Television coverage of his performances increased, too. Robert Shaw’s Christmas Festival (1986) was twice shown nationally on the Public Broadcasting Service. Another PBS special featured the Christmas portion of Handel’s Messiah (1987), and the performance was also released on home videocassette. ASO concerts celebrating the Orchestra’s 50th anniversary and the Chorus’s 25th anniversary were also widely seen.

In 1988 Robert Shaw passed on the administrative burdens required of a music director to Yoel Levi, but he did not leave the ASO, nor did the pace of his life slow down. A distinguished career in music and the humanities did not come to an end; it merely set out in new directions. Under his new title of Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate, he conducted several sets of ASO concerts a year. He remained as director of the ASO Chorus and continued making Telarc recordings of choral works, and his international guest-conducting schedule became much heavier. His Robert Shaw Institute performed and recorded at annual summer festivals in France, its final festival being held at Furman University in South Carolina last summer. He also performed and recorded in Atlanta with the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers.

Shaw was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Council on the Arts, and after his retirement his leadership and musical vision were recognized with a host of further honors. Among these were the National Medal of Arts, the Kennedy Center Honors, the Conductors’ Guild Theodore Thomas Award, and induction into the Georgia Music and American Classical Music Halls of Fame. The French government made him an honorary “Officier des Arts et des Lettres.”

The legacy of Robert Shaw will continue to reverberate in Atlanta for years to come. As Music Director and Conductor, not only was he the visible symbol of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s aspirations to greatness, he also provided the vision and the leadership necessary to that upward climb. For the ASO and for the city of Atlanta, he was an artistic conscience, prodding, encouraging, insisting and, when necessary, planting his feet and refusing to budge until the rest of us could catch up with him in the quest for excellence. He made Atlanta’s cause his own, and in so doing he made his vision ours.

– Nick Jones
1999