Interview - Howard Dyck with Florence Kopleff - 1992
Florence Kopleff’s Short Takes on Robert Shaw
Words and Letters
If you’ve ever received a letter from Robert, or if you’ve ever seen any of his letters, he has a terrific way with words. And they’re not just words that he happens to fool around with. They are words that sound like they come right out of his viscera. He has such belief in what he does. I mean that’s what makes him what he is. He is so strong and it’s so convincing, whether it’s conducting you or writing you a letter.
Nature of Early Rehearsals
Enthusiasm. You can get anything out of enthusiasm. He knew the notes. He would sing them along at top voice. Everybody would - we had a good accompanist. At the very beginning, “Y’all come. We’ll have a wonderful time.” Then after a while, “That’s not good enough. I worked all day on that part and I know it and you should know it as well as I do.” Well, of course, that’s a little illogical. He’s still like that now.
Robert Shaw – Hard Working Musician
He is the hardest working musician I have ever known. I have lived in the Shaw family occasionally. He’d go downstairs into his studio at 7 o’clock, 7:30 in the morning and maybe come out and go to the bathroom and have a glass of grapefruit juice and then go back and he’ll stay there all day. And you can hear him going from note to note. He taught himself to play the piano. He doesn’t play like a virtuoso but he can play scales. He can read score now. He’s taught himself that.
Halls on Tour
We tested every hall. We warmed up in every hall. And Robert of course would either tear down whatever stage they had or build another one. I remember standing – I used to stand in the middle of the back row and sometimes they were built of nothing but coke boxes and boards. I remember Robert going in the middle of the back row and jumping on the box to make sure I didn’t fall down. They were that primitive; not all of them of course, but in a little town, that’s what you had. And he would tear down the drapes and that would cause a stir because everybody loved those drapes. And of course you know it sops up the sound like crazy.
Regarding Shaw Getting Major Musical Literature Accepted on Early Tours
He did it with his will. I mean, if you’ve ever received a letter from Robert, or if you’ve ever seen any of his letters, he has a terrific way with words. And they’re not just words that he happens to fool around with. They are words that sound like they come right out of his viscera. He has such belief in what he does. I mean that’s what makes him what he is. He is so strong and it’s so convincing, whether it’s conducting you or writing you a letter.
Secret of Shaw’s Musical Expertise
I think Robert attempts to find the soul of the piece, not just from one direction. I think he tries it from every direction. He’ll try it from the wrong aspect, almost like when I say to a singer, “Sing that wrong, so you’ll know what it sounds like wrong. You’ll never want to do it again.” I think he really gets into the middle. As I said a little while ago, he will never approach a piece that he has done without doing the entire background and analysis again, treating it like a new piece because you’re going to find something new in it. He does retranslations. He just retranslated – he has redone “The Creation”. He’s redone “The Elijah,” trying - he’s also changed the” St. Matthew” a little bit, trying to make it more of our time.
Humor and Life
Robert has a terrific sense of humor, I mean, really. It can be hilariously funny. It can be terribly cutting, but he really has a wonderful sense of humor, even when it’s cutting. And, as I said, he was a great cajoler in the beginning with his enthusiasm and his charisma. He doesn’t depend on cajoling. He doesn’t depend on charisma. He just now depends on hard work more than anything. There’s no time for that kind of, shall I say, frivolity. There’s too much to do. I think the older you get, the more you realize what you haven’t done yet, or what you want to accomplish, and better, so there’s less time for fun. That’s unfortunate. He still manages some in rehearsals and some in his letters, but the intensity of him is to do more and to do it better. And because he comes from less, it means he has to work harder. I mean he always used to lament that there was Serkin who played at 5, and there was Szell who played at 5, and he can’t play the piano at 25.
Contribution of Shaw
He has contributed to the core – I mean, if you think in the, where are we, from ’40, ’41 to – oh 50 years. There have been an awful lot of people who have come through his hands. Some have picked up his worst elements – the screaming, the yelling, the tantrum, which he doesn’t do too much anymore. Some have picked up the good things. But all of those people have gone out into the country. You never used to hear the word “chorale” before. I mean it used to be what came at the end of a Bach cantata. And now there are more chorales. They are not choirs very much. They are not choruses very much. They’re chorales. I don’t think he set out with an intent to do that, but it happened. But there are so many – you go round the country, there are so many choral conductors who’ve been under his influence, either at the Westminster Workshop or the Brahms things or they’ve been here or he’s been out in Chicago and done something or he’s been in San Diego and they’ve come there.
I think Robert has the most acute ear of almost any choral person. He – of course he has a built in clock. I think you all noticed that in that workshop. His intense sense of rhythm, his intense sense of pitch, and his idea of choral tone is something that I’ve not seen in other choruses that I’ve worked in front of. The fact that that choral tone is alive – it’s not artificial, and it is unanimous, when it needs to be, and quite separate when it needs to be.
Why Singers Tolerate Shaw’s Cajoling and Temper
I would hope because they want to learn. There’s a lot to be learned from that man. And you have to put personalities aside. Maybe he said it to get your adrenalin going so you would do more, to spite him. “What do you mean I’m not as good as the others. I’m going to be as good as the others.” You know what I mean? That’s almost childish but maybe he throws down the gauntlet for that very reason. He doesn’t speak with hatred. He doesn’t speak with animosity personally. I think he always speaks with trying to get more out of whatever. That’s important to him. And again, to serve the music. I think he learned that from Toscanini if nobody else.
FK: My name is Florence Kopleff. I have known Robert Shaw since 1941.
Q: What time - what year was the Collegiate Chorale formed?
The Collegiate Chorale
Q: ‘41. So you were a member – a founding member of that chorale.
FK: Well yeah. We - in New York City there was an all-city high school chorus and Peter Wilhousky was the director. He was the director of choral music in New York City for the Education, the Board of Education. But he had this all city high school chorus [New York All-City High School Chorus] that met on Saturday mornings. And then he had a graduate group so that when you graduated from high school, you went into this little alumni chorus.
And one day he brought to our rehearsal this young, gangly, shy man and said that this man was forming a community chorus, and I think it was by then the Collegiate Chorale. I’m not sure. I mean the title was forming. I don’t remember that Peter said that, but he said, “And he is so fine that I am disbanding my alumni chorus so when you graduate high school, go and audition for them.” Well I was 17 at the time and I thought, well I only have another couple of months in high school. I think, why wait? I’ll go now. So that’s what I did.
Q: In those early years he had - Shaw had virtually no experience though, did he?
FK: But he had enthusiasm that was infectious. He had charisma. That’s a vague word but it was like Peter Piper. He could – that’s not what I meant.
Q: Pied piper.
FK: Pied piper – thank you. He drew them, and one person would tell another person, and then another person another person. And it so happened that then the next year we were in a war at that point and there were all those bond rallies and Red Cross rallies, and we appeared at almost every one of them singing oh – America the Beautiful, This is My County – the gamut – in places like Madison Square Garden and all around and so we got known for that kind of thing.
Q: Did you do any of the standard choral works?
FK: No major works. We did Beautiful Savior. I can remember in a blackout, Robert was standing in the window and we sang Beautiful Savior just to that outline because it was a blackout night or whatever. And then we evolved into things like Schuman and Copeland, the Six Chanson [Hindemith], or I don’t remember exactly which they were but there were those early concerts in the early 40’s that brought us to where we got in touch with the young American composers. And then ‘ 45 I think was when he - 44, I don’t remember the dates exactly - when he had to go in the Army. And just before that, Waring had a big international thing at Carnegie Hall in which the Collegiate Chorale sang and the Waring group sang. And we started doing – I think we did something like Western Star by Peter Mennin* - a little more choral orchestral things and somehow there evolved a friendship with Hindemith and Robert then commissioned the Lilacs** which I still think is one of the great works – wouldn’t change a note, wouldn’t put it - for a foreigner to be so well acquainted with Walt Whitman that you wouldn’t want the pacing of the text to change in any way. Extraordinary piece of music.
* She probably meant the "Symphony for Voices and Orchestra" composed by Norman Dello Joio and commissioned by Robert Shaw. The text was culled by Dello Joio from Stephen Vincent Benet's "Western Star," an unfinished narrative poem on the settling of the United States, published posthumously in 1943. The 'symphonic cantata' was composed in three movements: ''Virginia'', ''New England'', and ''The Sharp Star in the West''. Shaw's soloists were Eileen Farrell, soprano; Joseph Victor Laderoute, tenor; and Robert Merrill, baritone. Frederic Hart was the narrator, at Carnegie Hall, April 28, 1945. In 1952, the composition was withdrawn and revised under the title "Song of Affirmation."
** When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd: A Requiem for Those We Love, is a 1946 composition by composer Paul Hindemith, based on the poem of the same name by Walt Whitman, written as an elegy for Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. Robert Shaw commissioned the work after the 1945 death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It received its world premiere on May 14, 1946 at New York City Center, with the Collegiate Chorale, conducted by Shaw, with soloists, Mona Paulee, contralto, and George Burnson, baritone.
And when he came back [from the Army], he really decided that that’s where he wanted to go it seems to me and we got into more major works. I’m trying to think. We did, oh, concerts, annual concerts, the Collegiate Chorale, plus Christmas concerts and other vague appearances.
And then came Toscanini who came in and heard the Beethoven Ninth and then we started doing all the Toscanini things. And from that evolved the small group that did the first Christmas Carol album, in the heat of July, in a non-air conditioned studio and one of our girls who was Japanese took - emptied her Christmas box and strung things all around to try and put us in the mood. Those were the days when you had to record four at a time on wax and if you made a mistake, you had to do the whole thing all over again. Goodness, those were antsy days. I mean really, by the time you got to the fourth number, everybody was so like cracked eggs. And when you finished it, there would be a terrific sign of relief. There was that kind of thing. You’re asking me to remember. They call me part heffalump* for that reason, I suppose.
* Imaginary elephant featured in A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh.
And then he started doing – I remember the first major – I did the Magnificant and a Ceremony of Carols - but the first big performance he asked me to do was the Missa Solemnis in New York with the Collegiate Choral. It must have been ’46, maybe ’47, but it was that time. And I was a raw girl in New York and didn’t have any musical background. I sang in a high school chorus. I had no real musical background. I had taken a commercial course. In those days you either took an academic or a commercial course, depending where you were going, and my family said I couldn’t go to college so I took a commercial course – four years of typing, four years of steno, etc. etc. and – but no music. So I really was not a very good sight reader and – but a lot of people helped me along the way, and Mr. Shaw was the main one, I think, who encouraged me.
Q: I’m trying to think of what it would have been like for him to be doing Missa Solemnis in 1946. He would have been …
FK: I may be off by two years, but no longer than that.
Q: So he was about 30 years old at the time. Where would he have learned the piece? Was he working with Herford at that time?
FK: I was just going to say, he can tell you better than I. There were several people that he saw in those days. You see, once having gotten into Hindemith, you can only expand from that. You don’t want to go back to the narrow.
Rehearsals – Characterized by Enthusiasm
Q: How did you rehearse in those days? Was it – he told me that he’s a slow learner. I’m quoting him exactly. Now if we’re to believe that, it means that his unbelievable craft as a rehearsal conductor would have been developed over a period of time.
FK: Yes. It has evolved.
Q: So what was it like in those early stages?
FK: I told you before. Enthusiasm. You can get anything out of enthusiasm. He knew the notes. He would sing them along at top voice. Everybody would - we had a good accompanist. At the very beginning, y’all come. We’ll have a wonderful time. Then after a while, “That’s not good enough. I worked all day on that part and I know it and you should know it as well as I do.”
Well, of course, that’s a little illogical. He’s still like that now. Kids come from working, wherever they’re working, till 6 o’clock. They grab a hamburger and come running. He has spent from 8 o’clock until, and so he does expect terrific things. He’s done it with discipline. He’s done it with – well you saw him in the Missa Solemnis. I’m sure it was the same thing in the Brahms. Economy of vocalism. Getting into the musical structure, the rhythmic structure, the pitch structure, and that’s where he has evolved because he’s had to learn it himself.
Robert Shaw – Hard Working Musician
He is the hardest working musician I have ever known. I have lived in the Shaw family occasionally. He’d go downstairs into his studio at 7 o’clock, 7:30 in the morning and maybe come out and go to the bathroom and have a glass of grapefruit juice and then go back and he’ll stay there all day. And you can hear him going from note to note. He taught himself to play the piano. He doesn’t play like a virtuoso but he can play scales. He can read score now. He’s taught himself that. See, that’s hard work as you gentlemen know.
He still does it. He still approaches every – I’m sure he still approaches the Missa Solemnis today as he approached it the first day. He reanalyzes it, absolutely reanalyzes it.
Q: Are there some things that he did in those early years in terms of his rehearsal technique or even in terms of his interpretation that you would say now, with the benefit of 50 years of hindsight, didn’t work?
FK: Oh I’m sure he would too. The thing that got him by, the thing that got us by, not him, us, is that we were as enthusiastic as he was. Those early days of the Collegiate Chorale were very enthusiastic. We were young. We had a lot of men who were – I don’t know whether you say ROTC or whether they were serving in the Armed Forces, and they were going to Columbia University for something. I don’t know what. But half the men came in uniform. Everybody wanted to do, and wanted to do better than anything, and that’s when he wrote these wonderful exhorting letters: “Y’all better learn bar hum tah bar hum because that’s a treacherous place.” And then he’d go into the philosophy of the music or the philosophy of the text, and that’s an inspiring thing to get that every week – like throwing down the gauntlet – “I’m telling you this. You come back with something better.” And he – but it was then – I would - if I said one thing, I would say it certainly wasn’t as technical then as it is now. He knows more.
Importance of Words to Shaw – Poetry Classes
Q: He was working more from the viscera in those days.
FK: Yeah, yeah. He always worked from the words. The words always meant much to him, but coming from his background, that’s natural. We used to have poetry classes in the Collegiate Chorale. We – his sister used to live diagonally across from Carnegie Hall and on Tuesday night, we would meet there and read poetry.
Q: What were his favorite poets?
FK: I think I remember Yeats is what he liked a lot then. But it was that kind of community.
We had opera classes. He formed workshops. We never taught voice, but we had lieder classes with some very sterling gentlemen, I remember, for those who wanted to. Now, for instance, here for those who want to, I teach a voice class every Monday night. We did have a music class, sight reading and stuff. That’s sort of gone by the way. But I still teach a voice class. I have about 25, sometimes 30 people on Monday night. The object is always to teach. And the object is always to have people learn more than they know – get involved. As in any group of 200, you’ll have 100 people who are very involved and the other 100 who come because they want the company and they want to do the music but they’re not finitely involved with the organization, per se.
Q: Seems to me that in the last number of years, although he’s lost none of the intensity that we associate with Robert Shaw, he has mellowed and he is more – seems to me that he’s more centered now as a person than he was. I want you to remember, if you can, about those early days. Was he difficult to get along with?
FK: He’s been a tantrum thrower.
Q: He was an enfant terrible.
FK: Oh yes. He – if he couldn’t get you by one way, he would get you another way.
Q: And how would he?
FK: Well, if by being nice and cajoling – we’re going back to Collegiate Chorale days at this point - then he would throw the gauntlet down again and say a nasty word. “If you’re not going to work, then I’m not going to work. Goodbye.” He didn’t do that too often, because there was too much to do. But that has always been that challenge about. “If you’re not going to work as hard as I am, then what am I doing here?”
Q: Would he throw people out of the choir?
FK: Not really but they could, in auditions and re-auditions, they could be lowered on the track. The professional group was a lot more different. The first professional group, outside of those early Christmas carol things, was when we substituted for Edgar Bergen on the, I keep thinking, Jello program*. It was a Sunday night hour. We had been to Tanglewood for two summers. That was the first Tanglewood choral program, and he was also teaching at Julliard, which was the first Julliard choral program because Bill Schuman** really believed in him. And we got this program and so - in those days, there was a lot of radio choral singing, background music – Bell Telephone, AT&T, that sort of stuff - and every singer came out of the woodwork, every singer came out of the woodwork, and they could read backwards. I mean, another friend and myself didn’t think we belonged in that league, except we wanted to be in that league. I was secretary of the chorus. She was engaged to Robert’s assistant at the time, Clayton Krehbiel. And we would go to these auditions and he would line us up and 30 altos. Choose an alto or something. Start reading this music from that end. Hopefully, by the time they got to us, we will have absorbed something.
* Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, with his dummy Charlie McCarthy, made his first appearance on radio on Rudy Vallee's The Royal Gelatin Hour but moved to the Chase and Sandborn Radio Hour in 1937, continuing until 1956.
** William Schuman, American composer and president of the Julliard School from 1945 to 1961, then president of the Lincoln Center until 1969.
Q: Each one repeating it in turn.
FK: Yes. But when you’re nervous, all those dots get to be one great big blob on the page and by the time it got to us, we were never as good as those kids, I mean, in all honesty. But Charlotte had a very good voice and I had a good voice and we would trek back to the Collegiate Chorale offices with these records and the two guys walking ahead and the accompanist walking ahead and Shaw. “What are we doing?” It was demoralizing! Those people said - What are those girls doing here? They aren’t as - And finally I think Charlotte laid down the – and she said, “Now look, are we wasting our time?” and the boys would say, just don’t worry about it. Well, what happened was that we did get in.
It was a small chorus and Robert knew I didn’t read too well but he knew the voice I had and he would put me between two people who were sterling readers and by the second time through, I knew it – the second rehearsal. And then I could go home and do it myself. So that was vast encouragement. But those were hard days because he was at Tanglewood, and he would drive down in the middle of the night for a morning rehearsal. So he was really on edge and working hard. And the arrangements in those days – Henry Brandt and others – awkward, not always musical, in addition to some of the good things we did. But those were hard because he was testy.
Q: Because he was overworked?
FK: Well, I think he was overworked and this was our first taste of commercialism. We were getting paid union rates, whatever, and his name was on the line.
Who knows where it would go from there? It did evolve into the Robert Shaw Chorale. And maybe in those days he and Walter Gould, his manager, were thinking in those terms. So it was a big – either sink or swim.
Robert Shaw Chorale – American Tours
Q: You were with him in all of those tours too, weren’t you?
Q: Those intrigue me no end because I think in an awful lot of the communities that you must have visited – the folks there had never heard this kind of thing.
FK: Oh that’s very true.
Q: How were you received?
FK: Well, I’ll tell you. The first tour was a ten-week tour in one bus, every seat occupied, including four husky male smokers.
Q: That was allowed on the bus in those days, was it?
FK: There was a Stradivarius cello. There was a big box of music. Everything else was under me, and we all were there, like little sardines. And the roads were not what the roads were today. So we would get our luggage at 7:15 – the routine - the luggage at 7:15, the bus would leave at 8. You’d stop at 10 for a ten-minute rest stop. You’d stop some place between 12 and 12:30 for lunch, depending on where you were. Then you’d get on the bus again and if we weren’t going to get to our destination till 5, then you'd have another rest stop at 3. You’d get out at 5. You’d go to the hotel. Most of the time, you went to the hotel. Sometimes you went direct to the hall. The bus took the luggage to the hotel.
We tested every hall. We warmed up in every hall. And Robert of course would either tear down whatever stage they had or build another one. I remember standing – I used to stand in the middle of the back row and sometimes they were built of nothing but coke boxes and boards. I remember Robert going in the middle of the back row and jumping on the box to make sure I didn’t fall down. They were that primitive; not all of them of course, but in a little town, that’s what you had. And he would tear down the drapes and that would cause a stir because everybody loved those drapes. And of course you know it sops up the sound like crazy. And we did – we carried two or three programs, so we had to keep rehearsing them all the time so they didn’t get stale.
And then you’d get back to the hotel and shower and eat and do the concert and then there was always, almost always, a reception which Robert considered as part of the job so those of us who had to go, went, and by the time you came back, the sidewalks were drawn in in most places. But there was always somebody like, later on Seth McCoy who had fried chicken in the room, and the suitcases always had peanut butter and jelly and maybe some vodka or something. And that was the daily routine.
But the audiences in the major cities, of course, oh when you played Chicago or Philadelphia or something like that, that was a different kind of reception. But when you played the little cities, people were just awed by what was going on. And we didn’t do a very high brow. We did a good program - a Bach cantata or a Schubert mass and some Ravel chanson and then some folk songs and that kind of thing. They were good programs.
Decision to do Mozart Requiem on Tour
Well after a while, Robert decided he wanted to do a Mozart Requiem, and management said, “Oh you can’t sell a Mozart Requiem in community concerts. There’s a whole half a program where nobody can clap” – you know that bit. And he said, “That’s what I want to do.” And so they printed the program and sent it out and I think people wrote back saying, “We don’t want the Mozart Requiem. Big heavy piece.” So he wrote a letter to all the communities and concert people explaining his ideas and why this is the people’s music, etc., etc. And they all bought it. Or maybe a few didn’t but most of them did. And we - the tour was so successful that we repeated the same program the next year to a different area of the country
Matter of fact, our last performance would have been at the end of 10, 20, 30 weeks, 30 or 40 weeks, dividing the two years, was at Boston Symphony Hall. And it was – I think it may have been the most wonderful performance we did. We all went around and cried with tears in our eyes, first that it was over and B, or visa versa, that it was such a wonderful performance.
And so that strengthened his will and then he did – we did a King David and I’m trying to think what was on the other half of that - King David and The Magnificat maybe. Did a St. John, which required another letter.
Q: I’m sure it would.
FK: And then the other major work that he did was The Messiah. And then finally, we get the B Minor Mass. So, evolving from that first program in ’68 – no, ’48, 20 years, 19 years actually, to what we ended with, in 20 years, the concert programs changed that much, from three Brahms love songs and Ravel chanson, to a B Minor Mass.
Q: So it would seem that there was an incredible escalation in terms of the public acceptance of repertoire those years.
FK: But he did it with his will. I mean, if you’ve ever received a letter from Robert, or if you’ve ever seen any of his letters, he has a terrific way with words. And they’re not just words that he happens to fool around with. They are words that sound like they come right out of his viscera. He has such belief in what he does. I mean that’s what makes him what he is. He is so strong and it’s so convincing, whether it’s conducting you or writing you a letter.
Q: On these American tours, you’d be in close quarters for long periods of time. What was Shaw like?
FK: We did evolve into two buses eventually – smokers and non. And the highways got better also.
Q: What was Shaw like during those tours? How did he relate to the singers? Was he a loner? Did he mingle with people?
FK: In the very beginning he was not a loner. In the very beginning, our manager toured with us, Walter Gould. You met Walter Gould?
FK: And he traveled. The bus driver sat here and the two of them sat there. And they would play football with the guys at rest stops and stuff like that. And then occasionally Mr. Shaw would take his car in order to go ahead and – so he would take one or two people with him. As in any group as large as 60, you tend to form into cliques. And I think that also happened on tour. Happened in the Collegiate Chorale. Happens here with the ASOC. So that there were some people that were – that would always go out and eat together. You had a commonality of thought and ideas and language and so there were some people that were closer to him than others. After a while, he didn’t audition – didn’t do the main auditions for the Shaw Chorale. Thomas Pyle* and I did. An extraordinary man who died much too soon. And he and I did that and then we’d bring him the finals - pretty much he’d take that.
* Thomas F. Pyle was a baritone soloist and choral singer, who was a contractor to find choral singers for leading music groups, initially for the Robert Shaw Chorale. He was married to the composer, conductor and teacher, Alice Parker who also worked closely with Robert Shaw.
Robert Shaw Chorale – First European Tour
Q: Tell me about the trip to the Soviet Union.
FK: Let me tell you about our first trip. The first trip to Europe was 1956. We had 11 – we had 21 countries in ten weeks. And we were supposed to meet a Frenchman who was going to be our tour manager in Cairo which was our first date. We left here in a snowstorm. We had breakfast in Ireland. We had lunch in Amsterdam and we had dinner over Rome and landed in Cairo late at night. Now you know in Cairo all the store fronts have those shutters. You drove through the streets and it looked like a Never Neverland. Nobody out, no windows, no nothing. And we got to our hotel and there was a telegram waiting from the French manager. He decided our tour was ridiculous and he wasn’t coming.
Q: So there you were in Cairo without a manager.
FK: Now the closest I could find was that all those hieroglyphics looked like Gregg Shorthand to me except they never made the kinds of words that Gregg Shorthand meant to me. Well we had a little meeting –Mrs. Shaw - that was his first wife - Mrs. Shaw and Tom Pyle and myself and Robert and one or two others I don’t remember. We decided that Mrs. Shaw took over the communications with the State Department. I took over paying everybody. Tommy took care of transportation in addition to our singing and solo duties. And in those days everybody was to be paid – it was arranged that the bulk of their salary was left in New York – but everyone was to be paid seven dollars and fifty cents in the currency of the day. Well the first thing I did was go and try and find a bookkeeping store so I could find myself a big, massive ledger to figure out what I was going to do, and then every day – if we were in the town for two days, I could give them fifteen dollars – but I had to change the money and that sort of thing.
It was fascinating. In Venice, the canals went dry. The main canal was fine but the Vapore, the little ones that carried the luggage from the little hotel up in the thing – we got to the railroad - you know the Italian trains leave on time - we got to the railroad station and our luggage wasn’t there. And we got a message that they were stuck in the canals. So we left Tommy Pyle and one other person and 82 luggage checks, and we proceeded to Salzburg, and he came in on the next train – these two guys and 82 pieces of luggage. The conductors didn’t understand what was going on. Just little things like that.
We were on trains going to Belgrade and some of the kids were on the back platform. And we had stopped at a little town, and as we pulled out, the kids came running through, “Hey, they left our luggage out. They left our - the timpani and the music case and all that.” And we said, “No, you’re kidding.” “We saw it on the platform.” So we went to the conductor, and he said, “Oh, it’s not possible.” So we insisted on going to the baggage area and of course, they were not there. So we had to stop at the next one and phone back and those people say, “No, there’s nothing here.” And eventually, they went out and looked, of course, and there it was, so they had to send that on another train. Little things like that, which added to the fun and amazement.
Trip to Israel
Q: You’ve had music left behind on other occasions though I understand. Wasn’t there that trip to Israel?
FK: Yes. And we didn’t have the Mozart Requiem. And some place they found scores and vocal parts, but we didn’t need the vocal parts so much as the instrumentalists needed their …
Q: Was it the students who were in the audience who brought their study scores along and so they ..
FK: Yes, we had lots of those.
Q: Got them up on the music stands of the orchestra.
FK: And eventually the music came later. But at the moment it happens, your heart fails. And Robert looks as if to say, “How could you do that?” You! It wasn’t any you in particular, but how could this happen? And then after that first outburst, then we all said, well now how are we going to fix it? And we went ahead.
We got shot at in Israel. We went to Ein Gedi which is around the Sea of Galilee [probably meant the Dead Sea] and it’s a little finger that sticks up there and we were shot at on the road. I’ll tell you, that was the most magical place because I was never so close to the sky. You felt like – it was so dark, etc. – you felt like you could put your hand up, if you could lift it one more inch, you could pluck a star down. It was that magical a place.
And we met lots of wonderful people, some of whom we communicated with for a while and some who…
Q: Israelis really love choral music, don’t they.
FK: Oh yes. They battered down the doors and they sat in the aisles and they are very attentive. We found that around the world really. I mean Russia was the same way.
Russian Tour - 1962
In Russia, they really did break down the doors to come in and sit – or stand, in several places. And we played not only Moscow and Leningrad, we played in Lvov which I now see is Lviv, and we played a little town high in the mountains that had been Austrian, had been Hungarian, had been Russian. It’s right in that little point where the countries - they’re always going across the border. “You’re mine.” I can’t remember - it starts with an N. It starts with an S or something like that. And later on when I was in Aspen, the librarian was born in that town. We had a wonderful time telling him about it. But in a little town like that, they stood and looked at us. I mean they’d never – I mean we had a gorgeous blond, soprano, I mean, a knockout. And she was wearing a fur collared coat and they just followed her around and, “Ah, look at that!” Because they were practically in rags and tatters.
In Leningrad for Cuban Missile Crisis
Q: Now what year was that tour?
FK: That tour was ’62, in the fall of ’62. We were in Russia, in Leningrad actually, during the missile crisis. And a man from the State Department who was traveling with us came and said, “I have to have a meeting” so we had a meeting. Our hotel was right opposite the stage door of the Leningrad Symphony Hall. Gorgeous hall, by the way. And he said, “Listen. Here are the communiques.” We got copies of the communiques, ours and theirs, and – which we read avidly because on the news you would hear America, or whatever they called us in those days, and so you knew something was - and Kennedy. I mean you knew something was going on. He said, “We have no idea what’s going to happen when you get to the hall. We have no idea what’s going to happen when you go across the street to the hall. Don’t do anything. Just go.” Well, people were applauding as we walked across the street, and then the audience was just like any other audience. None of that affected them, so to speak, and therefore it didn’t affect us.
Q: Shaw mentions - at one point in the Musselman book*, he talks about the fact that the officials, the party officials, seemed to have a kind of a compartmentalized view of life. They’d be at the concerts too, wouldn’t they?
* Dear People … Robert Shaw, a Biography by Joseph A. Mussulman.
FK: Oh yes.
FK: Well they clapped like everybody else clapped. They first came to New York to hear us, to audition us. I don’t know, maybe it had already been arranged with the State Department, but they wanted to know what they were getting. It was a woman who was the head of that at the time. I think her name was Kritciva or something of that sort. She was the cultural head at the time and there were some - a few other men whose names we all remember, we would know if we saw them. One was a composer, and they heard us, and they heard us rehearsing the B Minor Mass, and they were very excited that we should do the B Minor Mass.
Q: They would never have heard the B Minor Mass before, would they?
FK: No, I don’t think so, unless they had a record or they got an air via radio from overseas or something, if they could hear that. The B Minor Mass was so well received. You have no idea. I mean it just – people sat in awed silence. There is nothing more wonderful for a performer than to have that moment of awed silence before the applause begins, right? And it was sort of like an intake of air. And then the burst, the outbursts.
Q: What was it? Was it the sheer, the music? This is a Christian work in an atheistic society!
FK: Well, I don’t think they thought of it as a Christian work. Well maybe there were some people who did. Obviously, now that the change has taken over, religion has come back full blast, so they have been religion. I think it’s interesting that the big synagogue in Moscow is called the Choral Synagogue.
Q: Is it?
FK: Yes – C-h-o-r-a-l. I don’t know why. I’m very curious about it. I tell you. Now, I’m not Christian, I’m Jewish. If you asked me what my religion was, I would say Bach.
Q: So you have no difficulty with the St. John and St. Matthew Passions.
FK: No, no, because to me, they are not religious works as Christians see them. They are universal works. I mean any man can say, any man, any woman, can say those words and it will be meaningful to them in their religion, whatever it is, even Muslims or Shintoists or what have you. I feel t hat. I as a Jew singing Agnus Dei – and everybody has acclaimed me for that, I’m very grateful for it – but to me, that is a personal statement. Now I’ve learnt that through Robert. I’ve learnt that through Julius Herford. I learned that because I’ve learned it as a soul fulfilling piece of music. The text – and it’s not my religious text but it is a terribly meaningful text. I teach – at school here, I really go into the meanings of the words. I resent anybody singing in a foreign language if they don’t know what they are singing. And even in English, they sing so poorly – they have terrible dialect, some of them. I want them to do it better because the essence of communication is the text and the sound, not just the sound. I remember hearing a Schwarzkopf* concert when I didn’t know anything about German and she sang a lieder, Abend, and I felt like I understood everything she was saying because her portrayal was so honest and from her gut that I feel that everybody has to do that and I think that’s what the B Minor Mass was.
* Dame Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, considered by many to be the greatest German lyric soprano of the 20th Century.
Q: For the Russians at that point.
FK: Yes. I don’t know that it was - maybe it was, as I say, for some a religious experience, but I think it was more than that.
Q: What did you have to put up with as far as accommodation was concerned?
FK: Well, our accommodations were good. We were at the big Ukraine Hotel, one of those - lots of towers and things. The rooms were small but clean. The bathrooms smelled abominably. They used – I don’t know what they would use but they really were awful. They carried us around in buses. We – the halls we sang in for the most part were quite beautiful. The first hall we sang in was the Tchaikovsky Hall at the Conservatory which is three flights up. We unloaded the buses and all the workers were standing around, and we couldn’t get anybody to help. We had our risers. We had our music. We had our stands. We had all sorts of things.
Q: No elevators?
FK: No, I don’t think there were any elevators. If there were, we didn’t see them. But – so Robert and Clayton and some of the other strong men said, “Well, we’re never going to get upstairs if we don’t do something,” so they started picking them up and walking them up the stairs. But these people stood there in amazement. “That’s the Conductor, and he’s doing that?!” So eventually they thought, well, if those people believe in what they are doing so much, then we’ll help them too.
No Review in Russia
FK: It’s that kind of thing. It was also the bit about – we never got reviewed. The New York City Ballet was there with Balanchine, just before us. Balanchine is – was Russian.* They got some reviews. We got no reviews. We got nothing.
* George Balanchine, originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, co-founded the New York City Ballet and remained its Artistic Director for more than 35 years. He also co-founded the School of American Ballet.
Q: Why would that be?
FK: We don’t know. We really don’t know. But Robert one day was talking to our dear very sweet little man who toured with us, a Russian who came from the Rosconcert which is their concert arm. Petroff was his name – Mr. Petroff. Little sweet man, so kind, so – and Robert finally said to him – I don’t know whether he was sitting in the sitting room of Robert’s suite or on the - could have been on the train. “Mr. Petroff, why don’t we have any reviews?” And Mr. Petroff said, “Well, they’ll come. They’ll come.” And in the next day’s paper there was. Now we were convinced that there were microphones, really convinced, and we have no doubt that - some of the other things that were said. Some people were quite sure that there were mikes around.
We went to - we had train accommodations up to Leningrad and again, good accommodations. Then we came down to Kishinev. I remember that because in Leningrad, one of the girls got up in the middle of the night and she saw troops going across the street, walking, and she came to my room and she said, “Florence, something’s happening.” And I said, “What’s happening?” “Troops, in the middle of the night!” So I woke our attaché and I said, “What does this mean?” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. There’s nothing going on at the moment.” See, this was just after the missile thing, and what happened, what it was, they were marshalling their troops for the great November day – we were in Kishinev at that time and I realized what they did. It was awesome. Kishinev was the capital of – I want to say Moldavia. I’m not sure that’s right. But the whole front of the hotel – you couldn’t look out the hotel because there was the biggest flag you ever saw covering all the windows. And then you went out and watched the parade, and I mean, thousands upon thousands upon thousands walking in uniform and tanks and trucks and all that, and a reviewing stand there. And if they were there in that little town, can you imagine what was in Moscow? And they would put a cheer and you’d get “rah” and it would go almost a vocal exercise, all the way through, same pitch, same quality of sound. So those are the little things you remember.
Odessa - Kopleff Family Home Town
I remember going to Odessa which is my family’s home town. I’m a first generation and that was very fascinating for me because the city looked just like what my father had said it was. And I remember walking down the steps. Remember the film about the Potempkin, the Eisenstein film and the baby carriage?* The woman lets go of the baby carriage and it bounces all the way down the stairs? Well, I walked all the way down those stairs. It was a very exciting moment for me somehow or other.
* 1925 Soviet silent film directed by Sergei Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin. The best-known sequence of the film is set on the Odessa steps, connecting the waterfront with the central city. A detachment of dismounted Cossacks forms a line at the top of the steps and march towards a crowd of unarmed civilians including women and children. The soldiers halt to fire a volley into the crowd and then continue their impersonal, machine-like advance. Brief sequences show individuals amongst the people fleeing or falling, a baby's pram rolling down the steps, a woman shot in the face, broken spectacles and the high boots of the soldiers moving in unison.
And I remember our concert was in what they – it was a big treasury building, now used as a concert hall, with great stained glass windows. But to get to the artists’ room, you had to go up one of these circular, narrow iron staircases, and I saw these women coming back, and I said to Robert, I said, “There but for the grace of my father go I.” Just as easily, I could just as easily been here.
But the music was appreciated throughout. We met some artists, some painters, who came to every concert, and insisted that we come to their house. The State Department wasn’t very happy about that but we went, four of us, I think. And we were followed. And we left our manager, then manager, in the car, and he was approached by KGB or somebody, wanting to know, and of course he didn’t speak any Russian, and so they finally tried to talk English, and then they would go to a telephone which he said he could see and they’d call.
They gave us pictures, which the State Department insisted on taking and sending by Diplomatic Pouch and examining in case there was anything on them. And the next thing, those people had been arrested, and later they showed up. They sent a note saying, “Don’t worry.” And later they showed up at more concerts. They tried to be at almost every concert. Where they got the money for it, I don’t know. They had a little reception in their house, and they had, oh, apples and cakes, little cakes, and stuff like that. You know that stuff was expensive. We went in the markets and they were just exorbitant. And all the walls were covered with their paintings and their numbers, and that’s how they showed their paintings. This was before they opened up the park in Moscow to show new paintings. There was a period. Then of course they took them all down. But they showed paintings on the walls with numbers. That’s how they showed each other’s work.
There was a man there who was translating Thornton Wilder’s Skin of Our Teeth. There was a young sculptor. That was in ’62. Later, I found an article in the New York – in Time Magazine where our painter – we knew he had been taken eventually to one of those psychiatric hospitals. We heard that from a friend of his, and eventually he had been let out, and he was allowed to emigrate and he was going to Italy and he had packed his things. And there was a picture of him unpacking his crate of paintings and they had all been painted with acid.
Secret of Shaw’s Musical Expertise
Q: Let’s turn back to Robert Shaw for a few minutes. What do you – what’s the secret of his musical expertise – it’s too prosaic a word. There’s magic in what he does.
FK: Well, you see, I think Robert attempts to find the soul of the piece, not just from one direction. I think he tries it from every direction. He’ll try it from the wrong aspect, almost like when I say to a singer, “Sing that wrong, so you’ll know what it sounds like wrong. You’ll never want to do it again.” I think he really gets into the middle. As I said a little while ago, he will never approach a piece that he has done without doing the entire background and analysis again, treating it like a new piece because you’re going to find something new in it.
He does retranslations. He just retranslated – he has redone “The Creation”. He’s redone “The Elijah,” trying - he’s also changed the” St. Matthew” a little bit, trying to make it more of our time. I’m not sure I always agree. I’m still stuck with the thees and thous, when I sing them. You, when you sing, is not such a lovely word as thee. That’s my personal bad analogy.
Q: The vowels are more problematic.
FK: Yes. I haven’t argued it with him. He’s usually very good about that though. I remember when he and Alice were translating the St. John Passion, they got up to her place in Massachusetts where there’s zillions of dictionaries – American, English, German, you know, they went back to the source. And of course, you know, you try and find the exact syllabification, but you don’t change the notes, the exact vowel sound, because that’s what it was written for, and the exact meaning. Takes an awful lot of time. And you don’t always succeed 100 percent of the time. But for “The Creation” and “The St. John”, he did a lot of that at that time.
Q: Has he ever – does he ever do them in German, St. John and St. Matthew?
FK: No. I think – I’m not going to put words in his mouth, but I think if he were appearing in Germany, he might. But – especially when there are so many narratives, it’s important that the audience hear, not just read a translation. It’s important that they hear the narrative, I think. It reaches you more personally that way. I think – as I said before – I think he’s the hardest working person I’ve met in music because he is purely self-taught.
Q: Which brings me to another question. He is, as you say, an autodidact. He also, however, exudes as a kind of – I use the word – a kind of animalistic approach to his music making. I mean, there is something really instinctive about what he does as well.
FK: He’s become more so as he’s matured.
Q: And how do you evaluate that combination of the instinctive and the learned?
FK: Well, the one thing that I think I’ve missed is the pixie in him. That has gone - the more intense has robbed some of the pixie.
Q: Talk about that a little more. What do you mean be that?
FK: The pixie?
Shaw Sense of Humor
FK: Well, Robert has a terrific sense of humor, I mean, really. It can be hilariously funny. It can be terribly cutting, but he really has a wonderful sense of humor, even when it’s cutting. And, as I said, he was a great cajoler in the beginning with his enthusiasm and his charisma. He doesn’t depend on cajoling. He doesn’t depend on charisma. He just now depends on hard work more than anything. There’s no time for that kind of, shall I say, frivolity. There’s too much to do. I think the older you get, the more you realize what you haven’t done yet, or what you want to accomplish, and better, so there’s less time for fun. That’s unfortunate. He still manages some in rehearsals and some in his letters, but the intensity of him is to do more and to do it better. And because he comes from less, it means he has to work harder. I mean he always used to lament that there was Serkin who played at 5, and there was Szell who played at 5, and he can’t play the piano at 25.
Q: Has he suffered from a kind of feeling of feeling of – is he insecure?
FK: Oh I think so. I think that’s one of his greatest – there’s no ego within Robert, no pompous ego in Robert, as you will find in some people. He’s continually searching. He is always sure that he hasn’t reached the pinnacle, because there’s more to learn about whatever it is he’s doing. And sometimes in that, he can trod over people. I don’t think he does it consciously. I think he is a lot less – what’s the word – a lot less intimate – friendly – no, friendly’s not the right word. He’s not as close to so many people as he was in his younger days. Part of that is now he has a family with him and his young son.
A part of it is he’s just overwhelmed with what he wants to accomplish. I mean, he could just as easily have done another Creation. He’s done a wonderful Creation. He hasn’t done it here for a while. But he went and researched the whole thing all over again. I mean arguments with Lan - Robbins Landon [American musicologist, journalist, historian and broadcaster]. I always get the two names reversed. You know what I mean? Long conversations. Long arguments. Long investigation and redid the text and is reworking the orchestral part. A man at 76 should maybe say, “I’ve done that. I’ve done a good job. I’ll do it again.” But no, he wants to do another. You know what I mean? It’s true of “The Elijah”. He’s just redone “The Elijah,” for performance. I don’t know when that performance is. You see what I mean? He will not rest on those laurels, whatever those laurels will be. I think he’s had a blast this year, with the Kennedy Center and the Carnegie Hall, the Musical America thing, and the wonderful things that he’s done at Carnegie Hall. I think he’s really had a blast.
Q: So he is enjoying the accolades, is he?
FK: And that’s a natural thing. I think he really is. I think it’s long deserved. I said I was biased, and I am. I think it’s long deserved.
Contribution of Shaw
He has contributed to the core – I mean, if you think in the, where are we, from ’40, ’41 to – oh 50 years. There have been an awful lot of people who have come through his hands. Some have picked up his worst elements – the screaming, the yelling, the tantrum, which he doesn’t do too much anymore. Some have picked up the good things. But all of those people have gone out into the country. You never used to hear the word “chorale” before. I mean it used to be what came at the end of a Bach cantata. And now there are more chorales. They are not choirs very much. They are not choruses very much. They’re chorales. I don’t think he set out with an intent to do that, but it happened. But there are so many – you go round the country, there are so many choral conductors who’ve been under his influence, either at the Westminster Workshop or the Brahms things or they’ve been here or he’s been out in Chicago and done something or he’s been in San Diego and they’ve come there. I think that choral music has grown in the United States terrifically since – in those days you just had what? You had the St. Olaf and even St. Olaf has changed its tone. You had Westminster and even Westminster has changed its tone.
Q: Are they all meeting on a common plane?
Shaw as Choral Versus Orchestral Conductor
FK: I don’t know. I don’t know. I – although my friendship with Robert is as intense as it was, I am not so chorally involved as I was. I have my teaching and stuff and so I, although I believe in this organization tremendously. I think he is – he used to be a prophet without honor in his own land. I think now he is a lot more respected, and you can tell that from the reviews. In New York City, Robert never used to get a good review. “Oh he’s that choral director who used to do The Collegiate Chorale.” See? A lot different these past few years. A lot different when he took his - the Atlanta Symphony Chorus and Orchestra to New York, and then to Europe. He’s built a terrific organization here, by the way, both chorally and orchestrally.
Q: Yes. Is he taken seriously by critics in this country as an orchestral conductor?
FK: I think – I won’t say they discard him completely - because they know him basically as a choral man and people don’t like when you cross the street. That’s unfortunate because I think Robert should be hired for a two week – did I say this to you before? – should be hired for a two-week session in which one week he does a choral master work or whatever and the second one he does a choral - an orchestral program with a concerto. Wonderful Mozart. Wonderful Brahms. And some terrific Beethoven.
Q: Players enjoy working with him?
FK: I think so, yes.
I understand that the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York were absolutely floored by him. Now that’s a very cosmopolitan sophisticated organization. They’re not just craft musicians or craft instrumentalists. I have to say that I hate when they say musicians and choristers. Bugs me. We too – singers – we too are musicians.
But I think he’s – I certainly, I’ve heard about the St. Luke’s thing as being a terrific experience.
Q: Yes. Well, we were there and we can attest to that.
FK: You know you can get in front of – he hasn’t played Boston in a long time. He’s played the Philharmonic. I think maybe they recognize how good he is. Those who’ve been there a long time remember him from when maybe he wasn’t as good, and that’s another thing. He’s had to learn - the stick technique for a chorus is a little different from the stick technique for an orchestra, and he’s had to learn that. He – and there’s no closet that you can go in and practice. You have to practice at large. He’s practiced with this band, this orchestra, and he has grown and it has grown. When Mr. Levi took over, he took over a very good organization.
Q: Yes. He does work differently with an orchestra than he does with a choir. Do you think he feels as comfortable in front of the orchestra as he does in front of a choir?
FK: I don’t know. He could tell you that more than I. Maybe at times, maybe if he knows some of the people in the orchestra, maybe as he knows people in the chorus.
Influence of Shaw on Kofleff Life and Career
Q: One or two quick questions. You’ve known him for 50 years. You’ve sung countless concerts of all kind of repertoire with him. If you were to look back over all of those years and isolate one or two or maybe three musical experiences that really stand out in your mind, what would they be?
FK: Oh. Well, first let me say that when people ask me who my teachers were, Robert has been one of my greatest teachers. If I had a good solo career, it is because of my work with Robert, and in the chorus. I would never tell a student of mine not to sing in a chorus. I would hope that he would sing in a chorus with a good director. I know there are many voice teachers who will not have their students sing – I don’t believe that.
Q: Good for you.
FK: I really don’t believe that. I – in watching the Brahms tapes, videotape, the other day, I was so thrilled because I heard things coming back to me that Robert said years ago, that I – that have become a part of me. Musical ideas. Vocal ideas. And that to me was my greatest experience. His encouragement of me, of course, was terrific. I don’t think I’d be where I was if he didn’t encourage me. I owe my career to Robert in that respect. I’ll tell you one thing and then I’ll answer your question.
I remember singing a St. Matthew - going up for a St. Matthew with Munch [Charles Munch, 1891 –1968, best known as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra], and I remember calling Julius [Julius Herford, mentor for Robert Shaw, and major influence on American choral singing for over 40 years] and saying, “Julius, I can’t sing this performance.” And he said, “What’s the matter?” “It’s been cut! He’s cut this and he’s cut that. I mean there’s no…” And he said, “Florence, not everybody will always do it uncut. You have to make music with what you have.” He said, “Just follow through.” And so I did and I became very enamored of Munch. Now Munch’s interpretation of the St. Matthew Passion and Robert’s are as devoid as the North and South Pole, right? But that man convinced me with his passion, that his St. Matthew was right. And that’s what Robert has done with all of his work, that if I could sing a St. Matthew with Munch and a St. Matthew with Robert, I of course would prefer to sing it with Robert, but he taught me how to – he and Julius taught me how to be pliable and to learn from what somebody else has to say.
Florence Kofleff’s Greatest Musical Experiences
Now if you ask me, I would say my greatest experience has – forever – has been singing in the B Minor Mass. I have sung the choral parts. I have sung the solo parts. I still to this day will take a score out – I was once asked – I’ll tell you – I was once asked by Mr. Szell to sing the Missa Solemnis. It was one of his early Missa Solemnis’s. He doesn’t – didn’t do very much because Robert was doing them. And I later read the contract and it said from memory. And I said, “Well I’m not going to sing that from memory.” And I happened to meet him at a reception after something in Cleveland, and he said, “Florence,” – very sweet man. Said, “Florence, what is this I hear that you don’t want to sing the Missa Solemnis with me?” And I said, “It’s not that I don’t want to sing the Missa Solemnis with you. I’d love to. But I will not sing it from memory.” And he said, “But you’ve done more performances than I have.” He said, “Why is that?” And I said, “Because I like to see what’s going on in the score. I sometimes in my mind switch from the bass part to the soprano part.” He said, “Yes, well my experience with soloists is that they hold their music up in front of their face, and I never can get contact with them.” And I had the temerity to say, “That may be because you hired the wrong soloists.” And I thought to myself, “Well Florence, there goes your cooked goose!” And later I got a notice from the management that he would do it with score. And in the performance, he had three soloists who were like this, and he had one operatic person who was like this. And the performance was quite a joy. We did it in Cleveland and in New York.
But I would say, first the B Minor Mass, and then the Missa Solemnis, are the masterworks that I would love to grow old with, so to speak. I never play my recordings, because you always hear something you want to do, and you can’t do, and you wish nobody else would hear it, you see, because you think it’s such a glaring thing. But Robert once asked to hear the Missa – the Agnus Dei because I was doing a performance here and he wanted to see the speed, etc. And I played the Agnus Dei, which I hadn’t played since the recording – it’s a long time ago – and I was absolutely in tears because I couldn’t believe it was me. Now, maybe that’s across the years, I can look at it some other way. I will not play it again for any – it’s a very hard piece for me to coach. It’s that far in my gut. And that Missa Solemnis – that and the Missa Solemnis [probably meant to say Bach B Minor Mass] to me are a religion par excellence. It’s much greater than Christianity or Judaism, or anything, to me. When I do those things, I am absolutely in hog heaven. I miss doing that. I mean I stopped singing when I thought it was time to do that and – but I can sing them in my mind, and I can sing them in my heart. I love going to a concert. I have to keep my hand over my mouth sometimes to shut up, singing the choral parts just as much, and not only the solo parts, the choral parts. They are just so soul feeding. To do that on tour, ten weeks. They said that if we toured with the chorus, we would have to take extras because the singers could not sing it, night after night after night. Well, we came back healthier than when we went, because if you sing it well - if you sing good music and you sing it well, you can only grow vocally. You cannot die vocally. And I thank Robert for all of that.
Q: I think you’ve paid him the greatest tribute now. When I asked you the most important experiences and asked you to reflect about him, you’re always talking about the music. That says a lot about him.
FK: Yes, exactly, but that’s what he instills in us. He comes to us through the music. He gets out of the way of the music.
Yeah, you used to see Toscanini in a tantrum - you used to see Toscanini in a tantrum. He wasn’t mad at the horn player or the drum player. He was mad because Verdi wasn’t being served. And that’s the same with Robert. He tries his best to get out of the way and to get into it. And that’s what he’s taught us, and I hope that those of us who’ve been – who’ve experienced anything with him take that away with them. I do in my teaching, I think, I hope. I may not be the greatest technical teacher in the world but by God, I think I can teach them that.
Now you’ve brought tears to my eyes. And that’s awful.
When - I remember when Toscanini came. Robert seems to think that we were at NBC but I have to correct – I read that somewhere in an article, and I have to correct him because Toscanini came to the fifth floor of the City Center where we were rehearsing. I know that for a fact because I was the secretary, and I tried to make sure that there were no hangers on sitting around outside the rehearsal room and that everybody was in place because he was coming at 9:05 or whatever. And he came in and Robert was rehearsing, and Robert wanted to stop and he signaled, “No. Keep going.” And Robert kept conducting and he walked – this little man – walked across the room. It was a long wide room but he walked across the room, and then he walked back with his hands behind his back. And he kept nodding his head. And after that, I understand he said to Mr. Sarnoff [David Sarnoff, head of NBC and RCA], “That’s the choral conductor that I want” or “That’s the one I found.”
And the first performance that we did, and I think it’s on tape. Maybe it was on the Kennedy Honors where Robert – Toscanini brings Robert out. You’ve never seen such a shy person in your life. I mean – “What am I doing here?” He later conducted – allowed him to conduct the NBC Orchestra for one performance.
And one of the wonderful things that we had with Toscanini was shortly before his death, a year or two before his death. Cantelli [Guido Cantelli, an Italian conductor who was Toscanini’s protégé] died the year after - or the year before . So the year before Cantelli died, we did a broadcast for the NBC Symphony. And I don’t remember whether it was the Cherubini Requiem – no. It couldn’t have been a requiem. It was something else.
And then we all got in cars, most of us, and we drove up to White Plains where he lived and it’s wonderful to me. New Yorkers are atuned. All the cars going one way. You see the red lights, and all the cars coming this way, you see the white lights. But we drove to his house. He was inside watching wrestling. And this had been arranged with Walter, his son. He was watching wrestling so we all tiptoed and there was this grand wooden staircase in this sort of Tudor house. We all got up on the staircase and sat up on the steps and started – Robert gave us a pitch or something and we all started to sing. And the door opened and this amazed little man came out. And we sang Christmas carols, and then when it was over, we were going to leave, and Walter said, “No.” And he opened the room to the dining room and there was a feast prepared. And Toscanini made a point of coming around and talking to every one of us. And in the back of the house was an open porch, glassed in in the winter where he had his birds, and he would take us around to see his birds. And when you see this man on the television and he was so stark and intense. And this almost cherubic person wanting to touch everyone, and to thank you for coming. “Come look at my birds.” And, “Oh have something – mangia, mangia.” It was just – I’ll tell you, it was something one won’t forget.
Q: Hardly the monster one reads about all the time.
FK: That’s right. That’s right.
Q: Ms. Kopleff, this has been just wonderful. I’m very, very grateful to you. Thank you very much.
FK: Thank you very much.
[Additional question was asked requesting a comment about the moment when Shaw said, “I gotta have a chorale. I need my own choir.”]
FK: I think I mentioned that when I thought it evolved into that, what am I saying, the 1948 radio show. You see, for two years before that, he had taken a group to Tanglewood as The Choral Workshop. There were 18 of us the first year; I think about 18 of us the second year. And then came this substitute thing in the summer. And I would think it evolved – excuse me – I would think it evolved out of that.
Singing in Mixed and Spaced Positions
[Question was asked about singing in mixed positions with each singer four feet from every other singer.]
FK: Well we sang in mixed divisions in the broadcast. And I think we sang mixed up when we sang our little Christmas carol things. I’m not sure how we sang – when it evolved into The Collegiate Chorale, that mix up thing, but he tried that quite a bit.
Q: Did some of those techniques – his concept of the choral pyramid, with preferring more lower voices than treble voices – do you think that that had anything to do with his radio-phonic experiences, with sensitivity of microphones and all that?
FK: Maybe, because he got that from Waring way back when he first came in ’39. So it may very well be. I will tell you something. I think Robert has the most acute ear of almost any choral person. He – of course he has a built in clock. I think you all noticed that in that workshop. His intense sense of rhythm, his intense sense of pitch, and his idea of choral tone is something that I’ve not seen in other choruses that I’ve worked in front of. The fact that that choral tone is alive – it’s not artificial, and it is unanimous, when it needs to be, and quite separate when it needs to be. Now he sometimes goes back to sectionals, depending on the work. But it was wonderful on tour to be – I mean, everyone was a soloist, essentially. You all - you had a quartet around you. You’ve seen that plot. There was a quartet around you, but you had to know your part, for one thing. And you had to know your music for something else, and then you had to listen. And it teaches people to listen.
[The interviewer commented on Robert Shaw’s cajoling, and the fact that they had experienced it at the workshop when he said to the sopranos, “Well sopranos, it’s not that I’m picking on you. It’s just that you’re not as good as everybody else.” The interviewer asked, “The thing is, why do people tolerate this? – his cajoling, or his temper or his moods or his sarcasm or whatever?”]
FK: I would hope because they want to learn. There’s a lot to be learned from that man. And you have to put personalities aside. Maybe he said it to get your adrenalin going so you would do more, to spite him. “What do you mean I’m not as good as the others. I’m going to be as good as the others.” You know what I mean? That’s almost childish but maybe he throws down the gauntlet for that very reason.
He doesn’t speak with hatred. He doesn’t speak with animosity personally. I think he always speaks with trying to get more out of whatever. That’s important to him. And again, to serve the music. I think he learned that from Toscanini if nobody else. We always finally found out that he wasn’t angry with the horn player although he said terrible things in Italian to him, just terrible things. And you would think that poor man would just flinch and go this way, but no. And everybody just realized that he was angry because somebody goofed when the note was there and it should have been as perfect as Verdi wrote it, and why wasn’t it? I hear it as perfectly as Verdi wrote it. Why don’t you hear it as perfectly? And I think a little of that is Robert. Good, better, best, I think is what he wants.