Robert Shaw’s Early Days with Atlanta and the ASO

GP:    In 1966 you came to Atlanta, Georgia and would you say, at the time in 1966, was Atlanta a cultural wasteland?  Or how did you, because I know people have described you as the re-builder, or the builder, of the Atlanta Symphony as we know it today.  What exactly did you find here? (Robert Shaw went to Atlanta in 1966 for only one concert and to prepare for moving in 1967.  His tenure actually started with the 1967-68 master season.)

RS:    Well, Atlanta was certainly not a cultural wasteland.  Henry Sopkin had started, as much as 15 or 20 years ago, a community orchestra.  And it had arrived at some professional status.  Now it obviously was not a - not everybody was paid equally and there weren’t really enough musicians to make a Chicago symphonic sort of sound.  But Atlanta also had at that time a distinguished literary - as the whole south did – a distinguished literary tradition. But certainly most of Atlanta’s culture - musical culture - was either associated with church singing, church choirs, or was imported.  The Robert Shaw Chorale, for instance, had been, by 1966, had been to Atlanta some half a dozen times as a part of the Great Artists Concert series. I forget.  I’m sorry I can’t say the name right at this moment.  I forget it, at that time.  I can remember the name of the man who brought us.  It was a noted Atlanta figure and it was Marvin McDonald who ran a number of concert series throughout the whole Southeast.

So, Atlanta had a musical culture, not completely unlike its present operatic state of culture.  That is to say, it’s largely imported and despite the valiant efforts of a number of people to create an Atlanta opera company.  My - in so far as I was responsible for the building of the contemporary orchestra, I think that would have happened anyway.   Atlanta was going to become - was going to grow up - was going to become as it has.  It probably says now it wants to be an international city, and in many, many important directions it is. 

So, it was a coincidence any - the growth of any institution like that is not one man’s responsibility.  The budget when I came was a quarter of a million dollars, or the budget the year before I came was a quarter of a million dollars.  And since that time it’s doubled once to 500 thousand and then another time to a million and another time to two million and once more to four and now it stands at eight. So it’s doubled five to six times within those years, and obviously I didn’t raise all that money.  And obviously, the money made it possible to afford to pay fine performers and fine instrumentalists.  So It’s been a community product, and I - Greg, I’ll just simply say right now, that judging by what I hear coming over the television and the radio, The Atlanta Orchestra has to be rated one of the fine, very fine orchestras in the United States.  

GP:      Oh it certainly is, and I think you are a large part of it. And it’s great to have somebody at the wheel like yourself, a name, someone who can steer the orchestra in the right direction, to get the right soloists every concert season, get the right material to perform every year.  And you’ve done several recordings since you’ve been down here in Atlanta, most notably the Christmas music again, but you’ve done a lot of other stuff.   Can you just take us back to since ’66 some of the fine things you’ve done for the Atlanta Symphony as far as recording.  

RS:      Well the one  

GP:     What stands out in your mind?  

RS:     We began with doing some recordings from our Christmas repertoire, from our annual Christmas Concert.  And then we did Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story because they seemed a natural sort of a linking because both of them are Shakespearian stories basically.  And then, if I can remember them all, then we began to be associated with Telarc and obviously it’s been mostly our recordings with Telarc which have come to national attention.  The first one came to international attention and esteem because it was the first of the digital records to be made, at least in the United States, and It was the Stravinsky Firebird and - I forget -  some other Russian - Polovetsian Dances on the other side.  And then we’ve done the Carmina Burana of Orff.  And we’ve done - let’s see - we did this new Christmas record   We’ve just finished a Brahms Requiem.  Louis Lane has done a record of Copeland and of Resphigi, and so there have been a half dozen fine, fine recordings. Almost all of them have, in one way or another - either because of musical performance or of genre because they’re chorus and orchestra, and symphonic Chorus and orchestra - almost all of them have won Grammy nominations.  So far there hasn’t been an actual Grammy, but that’s a little bit too much to expect, I think, when the centers, the people who have the votes, are New York and Hollywood you know?  And actually our membership in NARAS is not all that large.    

GP:      Do you consider the ASO a young orchestra? You’ve been here since ’66.  You’ve had a number of years to found it and then build it compared to Chicago or Los Angeles or New York. Do you still consider us a young orchestra?  

RS:    Compared to any of those orchestras, it’s still young.  It was built at a time when - and a most fortuitous time – because it was built at a time when people were getting out of colleges and universities and schools of music.  And there really aren’t all that many vacant places in those major orchestras, and so we got, we received a lot of young talent simply because there was no other place to go at that time.  And so that meant -  I sometimes forget that I’ve been here 17 years and I’m not so young as I used think I was either, but.  So it isn’t as quite as young as it was 17 years ago, but it’s still, in terms of those orchestras, I suppose it’s 10 or 15 years younger in average age.