Robert Shaw in an interview with Howard Dyck, CBC, 1992
Q: I want to now pick up again with some biographical details. You were in Cleveland, and it was about the same time, I guess, that you also became involved with Atlanta?
RS: Right. I went to Atlanta in ’67 and served there as Music Director and Principal Conductor for 21 years. And I finished Cleveland in ’66, I suppose, the season ’66-‘67. I had been to Atlanta a number of times on tour with the RS Chorale, and I had some friends develop actually through the Fred Waring organization - a wonderful man by the name of Charles Yates, who had won the British Amateur when he was a 21-year-old kid from Atlanta, and he was a good friend of Fred Waring because Fred Waring was an avid golfer. This man, Charles Yates, happened to be President of the Atlanta Symphony, and when Robert Woodruff, the Coca-Cola magnate, gave a considerable amount of money to the city of Atlanta to found a united arts center. It’s now called the Woodruff Arts Center, but it was then a center for the performing arts, symphonic, ballet, theater, and an art school.
They were about to build this edifice for the new performing arts center, with several auditoriums, and they didn’t have a symphony at that time which had enough recognition, really, to do a whole season of serious music-making. There had been a wonderful effort by a conductor to build an orchestra which had begun with an all-city youth orchestra. And they had reached a place where they were giving 8 or 10 concerts a year in doubles or something in the Civic Auditorium. But their annual budget was less than $250,000 annually.
They wanted to begin thinking about building an orchestra that would employ its musicians full-time. Obviously, members of the orchestra had to have two or three jobs to hold themselves together, and they wanted a full-time orchestra. The city was expanding and building, more and more of the young professional, administrative class of young American graduates of major schools of American business were coming to Atlanta to open offices in the southeastern area, and so there was a big influx of population.
Within a very few years, that orchestra grew from a budget of $250,000 and 20 weeks a year to 52 weeks a year and a budget now approaching $15-20 million. That’s an annual budget. And it’s undertaken a couple European tours and made a lot of records that have won Grammys, if that’s any standard at all.
And so it’s been – at that time I stayed pretty close to the stage and to the study for two reasons, the first because – well, I can think of three reasons. The first, because I had an awful lot to learn – a lot of repertoire.
The second, because it seemed to be a mistake to - this sort of hop-scotching, and a conductor would have an orchestra in California and one in Calcutta. It seemed to me that culture is built up in backyards, and not on front-store marquees. And I wanted the orchestra to become a part of community life.
The third thing is that I was encouraged to come to Atlanta in my own mind, because I wanted to be near people like Ralph McGill, who was the editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the conscience of the south, in this troublesome period of race relationships. I wanted to be near Martin Luther King, if there weren’t a feeling about music almost as passionately as I did, I thought we might be able to help the community work this thing out.
And I suppose in some respects, we did. The thing we haven’t been able to do, and almost nobody has been able to do in the United States – we didn’t fail any worse than anybody else did – we haven’t been able to make the membership of our symphony orchestra reflect the ethnic character of our populations. It’s not surprising that blacks would, if they have significant musical talent, would gravitate to where the money comes fastest, quickest – which of course they do, and which means in the popular and entertainment field, or athletics, whatever. So the long training that it takes to build a symphony orchestra player, though we’ve engaged in all sorts of training programs, have not produced the ethnic balance that we wish it had. But this was another thing that attracted me to that city.
A third thing [sic] obviously was a chance to see if, I suppose though it wasn’t extraordinarily conscious, but to see if I could build a sound in an orchestra that somehow matched the sound which I had in mind for my chorus. Just to find out – instead of exercising somebody else’s orchestra all the time – to see what might happen with my own instrument.
Q: What was that sound that you had in mind, that you wanted to hear from an orchestra which reflected your ideals as far as the choir or chorus is concerned?
RS: I don’t think I had any idea. Your question is intelligent, but I don’t think I had any idea. I was trying to find that. I’m a little bit more secure now in my thinking about it. I like - I love the Cleveland sound, with a few rounder edges at the ends of phrases. I like the Cleveland clarity without quite so much attention to brass brilliance. But, I don’t have the immediate relationship, nor never did to, for instance, the string playing, that a wonderful violinist would have, like Silverstein, who if he goes to Salt Lake to take over an orchestral position as conductor. Certainly very few of us have the relation to the instrument that Joey Silverstein has.
Nor that Bill Preucil has as he leaves the Atlanta Symphony to go become the first violinist in the Cleveland Quartet, and change that quartet, or help change it, into a world-class instrument. But I did have enough sense to grab hold of a Preucil, and for a while I think - I wanted an orchestra, and I don’t ever think I’ve ever learned quite enough – I wanted an orchestra to which everyone would feel free to contribute, and would not slow down rehearsal. So I invited criticisms and suggestions from principal players, certainly those closest to me, but also wind players that were a few feet farther away. And I didn’t try to – and I didn’t feel diminished if they would suggest something that was critical. I felt that the atmosphere was warm enough so that they wouldn’t take the opportunity to insult. They would only take the opportunity to help the product. And it seems to me – we’re again getting towards what you said you wanted to talk about a little bit later – but it seems to me that music vitiates its purpose if it is not a community of givers where everybody has a chance to participate in the product.
RS: Now an awful lot of people, including symphony musicians, would much prefer to be told, say “I want it this way.” “You tell me how loud or soft you want it, how fast or how slow, and then don’t mess up my life with a bunch of nonsense.” And it’s a legitimate point of view; I don’t think it serves music very much. The strange thing about creation of the arts, creation in the arts, is that it’s an intellectual discipline and a creative act that is about the most wholesome thing that can happen in human life. And everybody ought to be – and therefore it shouldn’t be used simply as a means of personal advancement, either monetarily or egotistically.
In my time, I think, the institutions of polity and religion have so vitiated their function that only this creative thing is left, and this is where nobility lies. That’s why I think that the arts aren’t anything but essential and necessary. As I tell - it’s been said to choirs time after time, you’ll never have it any better than this. You can’t step into a voting booth without compromising yourself one way or another, and you’re stepping into a rehearsal, and you can only have the opportunity to really ennoble yourself in company with your fellow person, fellow man.
Anyway – back. I didn’t have that sound in my head. I really didn’t. I was looking for it. And I think I recognize it now, and I think I get – I find, for instance, that pretty fast we got along fine with the St. Luke’s Orchestra. And I think it responded and it changed its sound within the first half hour or hour. And I know that it happened the day before yesterday with the symphony at Ohio State University. I certainly don’t get in the way of the orchestral players much anymore, within the limits of my repertoire. I wouldn’t attempt what my dear friend and collaborator in Cleveland days, Jimmy Levine, would do. I wouldn’t do a Salome without spending the next forty-five years trying to learn the thing. And Jimmy can turn it on and turn it off, but within my repertoire, I feel that I have something to offer now.
Q: Your repertoire grew while you were in Atlanta, that is your knowledge and familiarity of traditional repertoire, but also with twentieth century repertoire. And you’ve always been a champion of twentieth century works. In fact, it got you in a bit of hot water, didn’t it, in Atlanta?
RS: Yeah, it did, early on. The community - the executive committee of the symphony at that time had figured that my usefulness was very nearly over, and they were trying to make it over as very nearly as they could.
Q: This was about four years into your stint there.
RS: Yeah. I’m guessing. You may know better than I do, if you’ve looked at the dates. I think four or five years. So they asked me to resign and I did, because it looked like there was no point in not doing it, since it had been requested. And what happened was, they had made a serious mistake in terms of their own structure, and that is that they hadn’t advised the Board of the Symphony that this had been an Executive Committee decision, not the entire Board. And so, immediately the members of the Board, who I suppose at that time were forty to fifty people, felt that the decision had been taken out of their hands. And so they were immediately sympathetic with the person who’d – namely me – against whom the decision had gone, and so they were rebelling as much at their own position as in favor of the present conductor then.
The one extraordinary thing that happened was that a group of citizens got together and sort of organized a resistance to the thing, and encouraged the rest of the community by full-page ads in the newspapers, actually to counter the symphony’s proposal by subscribing to the entire season next year, which they did, but with checks not payable to the symphony society, but had to be counter-signed by Robert Shaw. So they sold out the entire next season, and I had to endorse every signature, every check. And there was no way almost that the executive committee could not back down under such circumstances.
In a sense the ads in the newspapers said, we want contemporary music. We want to hear what our own composers are saying. But the whole affair was buttressed by people who felt that their rights had been infringed upon, and so it had a good many different colors to it. But it was, in a sense it was - it obviously made news. It made national news. It made "Time" magazine, and such, so this was good for the city. And the right things happened out of it, because so far as the world could see, it was a clear decision that here was a community not embracing a person, but embracing the cause of contemporary music. And, you see, there were the three things: there were the contemporary music, and a person to embrace, and a small group of people who had taken too much responsibility, so the public aspects of it were all healthy.
Q: Did Atlantans, the concert-goers themselves, did they want contemporary music?
RS: I don’t - I was trying to do all the Ives that had ever been written – I was trying to do it in one season. Well, not all Ives, but all symphonic Ives. And this was probably not very generous or far-seeing on my part. I mean, I could have gotten by with half as much, and maybe made as many brownie points for American composition or contemporary composition. The position – I didn’t realize I was so proud of being a twentieth century supporter until I didn’t have the position anymore! And so it made a virtue in a sense out of my stupidity. I probably shouldn’t have done this as much, in that regard, because I think you can lead them as well as drive them. But it was good.
Q: You were always convinced about the repertoire?
RS: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, the thing that I’m convinced about is that if you don’t play your own century’s music, nobody’s going to get a chance to hear it! And to decide about it. And also, I’m really out of sympathy with the contemporary fad, whatever it is, of real, utter commercial music, whether it’s written for Hollywood, Broadway, or the church. If it’s written only for commercial advantage, then it’s usually pretty shoddy. And I was very sure that there was a lot of contemporary music that was written out of real intellectual conviction that this is the business of man, is to hear these things. So I felt that passionately about it.
Q: You had a lot of administrative duties to attend to as music director, artistic director of the Atlanta Symphony. And in, was it 1988, the late ‘80’s, that you stepped down from those duties. Maybe we should back up for a moment. I’m interested to know how you feel about doing all those kind of day-to-day chores that a music director has to do, the administrative details that have to be looked after.
RS: I’m not very comfortable with it, nor am I very good with it, I think. I can, with prepared materials, my own speeches and talks and my own writings, I can move a town, or a board, or a Rotary Club, things like this, and convince them that this is the way to go. But the day-to-day stuff, I don’t enjoy. I don’t enjoy the necessity of firing people, and occasionally that happens. And so those things are difficult and I was very happy not to have to do them anymore in 1988.
I also felt, however, that there was a lot of repertoire, which I’m not by nature I’m enormously sympathetic with, which is the Romantic literature of the late Nineteenth Century, nor am I an expert in it. And twenty-one years is a long time for a symphony orchestra to have to stay with one person’s repertoire preferences, or gifts, either one – or limitations.
And so, it’s really time, if the orchestra was to continue to flourish and grow as it had in the past, it was time for that orchestra to be exposed to another personality. Now, I saw to it that there were good guest conductors, and a good number of them. Because I was not only acting as music director and principal conductor for the symphonic repertoire, but I was also doing the choral repertoire and building the chorus. I used to feel that that was a pretty full-time job. In Cleveland, when I was doing that I was doing at least one and a half jobs, as well as possibly two. But it certainly was time that the community had another man’s preferences and gifts.
Q: What do you think was your best repertoire, purely orchestral repertoire, during the Atlanta years?
RS: Brahms, Beethoven.
In a vain way, I still think that our Brahms’ symphonic performances could be standard for – for the world. That sounds stupid, but I believe that. And Beethoven also. I don’t know why those should be closer to me. My initial preference, through study with Mr. Herford, and as I grew through the years, was Bach. And then Handel. But then I leaped over a little bit Mozart, Schubert – to Beethoven, because he was a revolutionary.
Q: Do you love revolutionaries?
RS: Yeah. I love the fact that when you put on a Beethoven Ninth Symphony, the hall is full of blue jeans. I think that spirit still speaks. And Brahms because he was a songwriter, constantly, and could raise the song to a sort of an ecstasy - impulsive, and even occasionally convulsive, but from a lyric base, and that excited me very much. And so these were the things - I also felt a little bit – though it’s not the same affection with which I study Beethoven and Brahms – I felt particularly after my tour in Russia that I could do a Tchaikovsky symphony that was very special, and so I enjoyed that, or music that came out of eastern Europe, except the sort of Rimsky-Korsakov thing that was written primarily for color, because this didn’t interest me quite as much. Or maybe I didn’t have the skills to manipulate it enough.
I read a score with difficulty. I have to solfege every note. And I don’t have keyboard skills, and so it’s a real chore to learn a new, major work. I think that if I’d had the skills that those men had in my generation, Lukas Foss and Mr. Bernstein, I’d obviously been better prepared to handle some of these things, some of these situations that picked me up by my ears, and said, boy, now can you swim here?