Living with Robert Shaw

HD:            So, what I’d like to talk to you about is living with this man, and take us behind the scenes a little bit, about his day-to-day regimen, things as mundane as is he an early riser, and what does he like to eat. Those kinds of questions.  I think perhaps you’ve seen some of these questions already. Did Nola give you some of them?

Caroline Shaw:            Our son faxed them to us last night in Ohio, and I looked at them while you all were interviewing Robert.

 Well, as far as his daily regime is concerned, he is the most disciplined human being I’ve ever known in my life. He really is.  He is an early riser.  He gets up and he simply works, all day long, every day.  It is very hard to get him to take a break for lunch, or to take a walk or to do anything - practically impossible, in fact.

HD:            Do you try to protect him from himself?

Caroline Shaw:            I try to.  Mostly I try to protect him from other people, because they just - they swarm like bees all the time. And he can’t get any work done if he’s interrupted to the extent that he would be if he didn’t have several temple dogs at the door - in New York, in Atlanta and wherever else.

 But no.  I did, in the first years we were married, try to insist on some recreational activity and I realized it was a fruitless pursuit. He simply needs to work as intensively as he does for his own feeling secure in what he is doing and in the work.  He has to be totally immersed in it, really. But, of course, he comes up for lunch and he comes up for dinner and we have wonderful family times.  But there’s nothing much else beyond that when we’re in Atlanta.  Or in France.  We have a wonderful time taking short excursions and taking long walks but he sits in his studio and works 8, 10, 12, 14 hours a day.  And the days that he has rehearsals and concerts are his easiest days, really, in terms of length of work. He only rehearses 6 or 8 hours a day, sometimes 10, but he will be at his piano with his scores 12 and 14 hours a day.

HD:             Is that how he works at a score?  He takes it to the piano and he’s playing the parts?

Caroline Shaw:            He plays all the parts. He studies it from an analytical point of view. I am sure he probably talked to you about that. And it’s fun to - his studio is on the basement level of our house.  It really is the whole lower floor, and it’s fun to hear all the different parts coming up. You never can quite figure out which instrument he’s playing at the time, because the bassoon only sounds only like a piano, but you can tell it’s not the violin.  Something way down here.

 And then, after he’s finished his very detailed analysis and hearing all the instruments - you know, what the scores look like and I don’t know how anybody reads a conductor’s score with 15 staffs or whatever coming down - I would sometime hear him playing recordings of former performances of his own of that work or of other people’s interpretations, other recordings of the work. Getting it all in his head.  But he is mostly sitting at that piano for those 14 hours every day.

 HD:             When you said he listened to recordings; have you noticed any kind of trends? Are there any conductors that he, any particular kinds of interpretations that he prefers to others?

Caroline Shaw:            The ones that are more like his own, of course!  There are some that he just loves, others that he is very lukewarm about, and others that he really thinks are not to his liking, which doesn’t mean they’re not good, they’re just not his taste.

HD:              What does he like to eat?

 Caroline Shaw:            Everything. Good food. Ethnic food. Exciting and interesting food. And that's one of our great pleasures is going out to good restaurants in all these wonderful places that we go to. He can be a very, again, disciplined and moderate, and sensible eater and then he can be just as extravagant as anybody you ever saw and eat much too much just like a little boy and get sick the next day.

HD:             I’ve heard it said that, when he is in the middle of rehearsals, he sometimes just doesn't get around to eating until the rehearsals are finished for the day. Is that so?

 Caroline Shaw:            That's true. And he never eats before performances. We always have dinner late after the performances. But he eats a very good and healthy breakfast; things like Familia or granola cereal with fresh fruit and orange juice and a huge mug of coffee and that can last him until dinner time. So he's not depriving himself of nourishment.  He just really feels better when he does not take a break and eat.  He feels lighter and more agile, and he says his brain works better.

 When Caroline Met Robert Shaw

 HD:             When did you first meet him?

Caroline Shaw:            Oh, goodness. I can't remember. I guess it was when he first came to Atlanta. I was on the Board of the Symphony and got to know him that way.

HD:             Was it love at first sight?

Caroline Shaw:            Oh, no, for heaven's sakes.  We were both married to other people and all I saw was the back of him, in the Concert Hall.  I was on the Board of the Symphony and he got fired, you know in 1971, for playing too much Charles Ives. Only, he got fired a little bit illegally because there was not a quorum of the Board that voted on it. And so, when it got back to the full Board, it was reversed, and in the meantime, those of us who did not agree with the decision to fire him had gotten together and formed a little sort of rescue mission wherein we sold out the whole next season, every seat in the Hall for the whole season, and the checks were made out to the "Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Robert Shaw Music Director".  In other words those checks could not be cashed if he were not the Music Director.  So that played a role, I think, in getting the decision reversed.

And then, just sort of gradually through that, I got to know him a little bit, but it was only after I was divorced and he found out that I was available that I really got to know him. And it was a very quick, I must say, courtship. He knows what he wants and he goes after it. We had dinner together twice and he said "we've either got to get married or never see each other again." And so it was very romantic, I must say.

 HD:             What was it about him that attracted you?

Caroline Shaw:            His energy, his vitality, his passion for everything he does.  He is the most exciting human being that I have ever known in my life.  He is completely passionate, intense. Energy that just never stops. Brilliant. He wakes up in the morning saying the most profound and wonderful things and different from anybody's ideas about anything that I've ever heard. I mean, it's just incredible the sort of well spring of creativity in that mind.

HD:             What did he say this morning?

 Caroline Shaw:            Oh, I can't remember this morning except that it was adorable. Yes, I do remember, too, but it's none of your business. 

 He's also very funny and completely irreverent, as you probably could tell.  We just have such a good time. It's just so much fun. And even there are times when it's very tense and pressured because of the way he feels about his work.  He's so focused and so concentrated. There's always too much to do and too few hours in the day. But even when the going gets rough, I still would not change places with a soul in this world that I know. I think I am the most blessed female human being that I know. He is just fabulous! And I think everybody who works with him feels that way to a certain degree. He’s just fabulous. And I use that word knowing the meaning of the word, not just as a sort of fad word that you say about everything. He’s almost a mythical figure.

 HD:            Does he ever get testy?

Caroline Shaw:            Yeah! He does, but it’s usually because he’s pressured from the work. And he’ll blow off a little bit. But, as soon as the work is under control and done, then, he’s very relaxed and fine.

The Children – Alex and Thomas

 HD:            You have a couple of children?

 Caroline Shaw:            Yes, I had a child by my first marriage who was just about 4 when we married and then we have Thomas who is almost 15.

HD:             And how does he relate to the children?

Caroline Shaw:            Beautifully.  He relates to them in his own special way. He’s not your sort of archetypical father.  And he’s not always around. Since he retired from the Atlanta Symphony he’s conducting somewhere just about every week. So, he’s not a totally present father. But he’ll show up for one soccer game and in a parent child match he’ll be able to kick the ball from one end of the field to the other, which nobody else’s 35-year old daddy can do. He makes his mark.  They have a wonderful time together, the children and Robert do.

HD:             Are they musical?

Caroline Shaw:            Both of them - yes, probably to the extent that he is.  Our son Alec, when he got to be in the eighth grade, I allowed him to quit taking music lessons.  And he said he never wanted to see another music score as long as he lived and didn’t. But when he got into college he started singing with all the singing groups and just had a wonderful time, and Robert went to his college and spent a week working with the young people and that was great. And little Thomas has studied music just as Alec did.  He’s totally literate in it but he likes to play jazz piano.  I have forced it to the extent that I want them to be musically literate but I don’t want to push it on them because Robert is just this freak. He never had a music lesson before he was a professional musician and I think if it’s going to happen, it’s in the genes and it will happen.

 HD:             One way or the other?

 Caroline Shaw:            Yeah. And certainly they’ve been exposed to just wonderful things all their lives.

 Summers in France

 HD:             Do you have a social life? Do you have a circle of friends that you get together with that have nothing whatever to do with music?

Caroline Shaw:            Yes, but mostly in France. There just isn’t time. Fortunately my life was totally secure before I married him. So I have a large number of friends having grown up in Atlanta and been a part of the community all my life. So I have my friends that are wonderful. And I try not to inflict them upon Robert because he doesn’t have time for all of them. He’s too busy.  He’s awfully nice to them though when he does see them.

 But mainly when we have time to relax and just enjoy friends and leisure activities is in France. And sometimes I feel as though I run a small hotel over there. I have to put a barbed wire fence around him sometimes just to keep too many people from coming.

 HD:             How much time do you spend in France?

Caroline Shaw:            Four months a year, usually.  This year we probably – well, we won’t get there until July because he’s conducting in Japan for most of June. But, in a normal year, it’s from the first of June until the first of October. Thomas comes home the first of September to go to school and then we have a honeymoon for a month.

 HD:             Did you buy a house in southern France?  I’ve heard rumors about this, that you purchased a property and you’re re-doing it.  Is that correct?

Caroline Shaw:            We bought an old ruin and we bought a deliberate old ruin because the French have so much wonderful old stuff that they’re not as concerned with it as we are.  We saw so many places where they would take the beams and put red patent leather on them, or something, and we wanted something pure that we could restore purely. And so we found, as my older son calls it, an old pile of rocks which is just a perfect example of the rural architecture of this region of France. And we did restore it 10 years ago and it is a perfectly beautiful farm complex now.  It is not a villa and not a chateau, it is a farm complex and we just adore it.  Heaven.

HD:             And does he actually do some work in the places – is he a handy man?

 Caroline Shaw:            He can be and he’s the best I’ve ever seen. He’s a perfectionist in everything he does and he loves to make things with his hands.  At first he was refinishing old pieces of furniture and doing things like that before his studio was complete. Now he does his work on his music in there – we’ll there’s really nothing left to do for the house. We have a gorgeous old Louis XIV (quatorze) farm table that is our dining table and he refinished that himself with pieces of broken glass and getting all the scum of centuries off of it and then rubbing it down with linseed oil. It’s gorgeous. But you’d have thought he was building the Taj Mahal.  Everything had to be perfect.

HD:             Is this therapeutic for him?

Caroline Shaw:            Oh, yes! Everything he does like that is therapeutic. But he does not do it at a relaxed and leisurely pace. He puts as much vigor and intensity into it as he does into his music. It is not relaxation. It is hard work. It’s just different hard work.

 HD:             Does he have any other hobbies?

Caroline Shaw:            Well, sports of every kind. He’s sort of a natural athlete. I’ve never known anybody like him. On the one hand he can talk about the structure of a Mozart Symphony and on the other hand he knows the batting averages of every major league baseball player and what the score was in last week’s football game. The sports are a great relaxation for him – participating in them and watching them both.

 HD:             He was telling us earlier this afternoon that he hopes to get in the last part of the Super Bowl.

 Caroline Shaw:            He is so excited about that Super Bowl. He’s talked about it to everybody he’s seen today. And all the games leading up to it.