Nola Frink served as Robert Shaw's administrative assistant
for 26 years spanning from the time that he was Music Director
of the ASO until his death in 1999. This interview was done
by Howard Dyck in 1992. Following this short interview is a
longer reflection recorded in 2017.
NF: I’m Nola Frink from Atlanta and I’m Robert Shaw’s Administrative Assistant and also the Choral Administrator of the Atlanta Symphony.
Q: How long have you worked with Mr. Shaw?
NF: 18 years. Sometimes seems like more and a lot of times seems like less.
Q: What does your work actually involve with him?
NF: Well, I give as my job description that I get the water ready for him to walk on. And I’m finding there’s more and more water every day.
Actually, I serve as his administrative assistant, handle his travel schedule, his guest engagements, plus any correspondence usually comes to my attention and sometimes gets to his attention. And then as Choral Administrator, I’m responsible for seeing that we have a chorus every year. Sometimes I do the actual auditions myself. I have a music background and actually moved to Atlanta to be able to sing with Robert Shaw and had no idea that I’d also be working so closely with him. So it’s - I’ve had kind of a double blessing.
Q: You have occasion then to work with him in the day to day operations and certainly during the years when he was the conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, but even now when he returns regularly to work with the choir. But you also observe him when he does guest conducting engagements and workshops and seminars such as he’s doing now. Do you find there’s a difference in how he operates in a situation such as we are experiencing this week, as opposed to the routine at home?
NF: I certainly do. I must say though, I don’t travel with him everywhere. It’s only when I’m involved in the chorus that is singing and because I’m a part of his France Festival Chorus, I therefore am a part of this chorus. And it really depends on the quality of the performers. I have found that - this is a very high level chorus. There are conductors and professional singers in this group. So therefore he speaks to a higher level of understanding - is already present and he’s much happier when the musical forces are working together well. Sometimes in the routine situations of which I’m a part, we don’t have as many really professional caliber singers to draw from and so therefore there’s much more frustration and a lot more anger displayed than in this situation.
Q: You help to defuse him in those situations when he gets frustrated and angry?
NF: I’m afraid a lot of times I serve as the fire. I sometimes …
Q: The lightening rod?
NF: Yes. But I try to. I try to make everything workable so that there as little frustration as possible. He’s inclined to get much more angry when music is not right or when he’s tired and usually those things coincide because he has to work so hard to try to figure out how to make something work.
Q: What do you find are his greatest strengths as a musician and conductor?
NF: He’s perpetually finding something new to bring to a work. He never stops studying it. I mean he’s probably conducted Handel’s Messiah more than any living conductor or any nonliving conductor and yet he studies it as if it’s a new score every time. And the Beethoven Missa Solemnis must run a close second to that. He surely has had more history with this piece and I mention that because that’s the work we’re preparing in this workshop. But he certainly has had more experience with the piece, both having studied about it and having conducted it, and yet he’s approached it as if he’s never known the work before.
And I know, I find one of his, one of the things that’s the most admirable about him and yet also the most difficult to deal with – he never stops creating. And there are times - for instance, he’s passing out a document today that I must have typed three times already and it changes every time and every day and he’s changed it here even, made some changes, and I don’t happen to have my word processor with me and it makes it a little difficult. But that’s the beauty of this man. He never stops growing and is continually finding a better way to say something or a better way to do something and so therefore can bring a great deal more than just someone who’s content to rest on his laurels.
Q: Another question with regard to his work in Atlanta where you have occasion to see him working with the choir as well as with the orchestra. Does he work fundamentally differently with one as compared to the other?
NF: Yes, he does. Now, in Atlanta, our chorus is totally a volunteer chorus, amateur chorus. They would kill to be in the chorus. I don’t mean – there’s a lot of competition still, even though we’re not paid singers there. But he talks with the orchestra more – they’re professionals after all – and a lot of the time he’s more of a cheerleader with the amateur chorus. You’re just being a cheerleader a lot more of the time and having to love people into doing what you want them to do rather than just telling them what you want.
Q: That’s always been a strength of his, though, hasn’t it? He seems to enjoy working with people who do it for the love of it.
NF: Yes. He’s as much of an amateur as – one of his themes – he thinks that we all ought to be amateurs, meaning we ought to love it that much, that it means so much to us that we want to give it our all.
Q: Have you sensed at all the last years that he’s slowing down?
NF: He’s never been busier in his life than he is now, which means that I’ve never been busier. And I thought retirement was going to mean retirement but I just find that it means that we’re just doing more different things. He guest conducts, I would say, at least two weeks out of every month, and frequently not the same repertoire. He must do 40 different pieces a year at least, and always loves to be doing something new along with things that he could do in his sleep. And he approaches them all with the same intensity. And I don’t know if you’ve seen any of his scores but he edits very carefully, so he just spends hours in study, in preparation, so that he saves – the forces he conducts almost always are more than 100 so he doesn’t want to waste 100 people’s time or for instance, a chorus is 200 in strength, and orchestra of nearly 100. So he’s very conscious of not wasting people’s time which means that he studies. He would never go into a rehearsal without have studied and prepared for hours, and having the parts prepared, the orchestral and the vocal parts, prepared well in advance so you don’t have to waste time saying, I want a crescendo here. It’s already there. It’s written in for you. You really just have to do what he’s edited for you to do.
Q: Does he confer and associate with other conductors?
NF: Well, there’s not much occasion to. Usually when he’s guest conducting, he’s the conductor there. I know he has friendly relationships with them and has kind of casual acquaintances but I can’t think of – I mean he and Mr. Bernstein used to speak on occasion, for instance, but so as far as actually running into them, there’s just not that opportunity. He certainly sees a lot of choral conductors who attend his workshops – that sort of thing.
Q: What do you suppose is going to happen after Robert Shaw is gone?
NF: Well, I don’t like to think of those days but he’s written so much through the years and I’m hopeful that we can compile these writings in some form. And we hope to have his scores housed in a place where they can be studied by upcoming conductors. And of course he lives on in his recordings. But I don’t like to actually think of the person not being here but you have to inevitably think that that eventually will be. But there is a lot of – there’s quite a lot of information already compiled that he has prepared and that makes it so much more interesting, I think.
Q: What about the future of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus? Is it assured? Is the – are the roots deep enough that the choir can continue even when he will no longer be conducting it?
NF: I think so. I think there are a number of people who wish to stay so long as he’s there. I’m one of them. I don’t think I would be there much beyond his tenure but I’m to the age when I probably shouldn’t be singing much longer anyway, and it’s time to just listen. But there seem to be a lot of enthusiasm for choral music and there are a lot of fine choral conductors in Atlanta, and our assistant conductor, Ann Jones, does very well. She’s a wonderful conductor. She doesn’t conduct us in concert. We do sing with Mr. Levi already some and he’s fine. There’s a totally different emphasis, but I’m sure there’ll be a chorus. I would hope so. I mean this is something he’s built, after all, and we want it to be continuing, and want it to be fine.
Q: What’s his daily regimen?
NF: Well, I know Mr. Shaw is an early riser. He likes to have a large chunk of time free to study without interruption, and I represent interruption. He’ll usually check in with me early in the morning to say, “Do you need me to answer anything? I’m going to turn my phone off now and I’ll call you at such and such time.” He’s inclined to rest some in the middle of the day and then work again all afternoon until six or seven in the evening and when he stops, he stops, for that day. But he does put in very long hours - I would say ten to twelve hours a day, still, and this is retirement.
Q: And this is score study.
NF: Yes. Now this is when he’s studying. Now when he conducts – you’ve probably observed in the last couple of days – when he’s guest conducting, he would have – he usually has two, if he’s doing a choral work, two rehearsals with the orchestra alone and two chorus rehearsals with piano, and then two combined rehearsals and then he’ll have solo coaching sessions, as many as are needed, with the soloists before they get into orchestral rehearsals. And again, on the road, he’s studying as well, so it’s a strenuous schedule, and usually starts at 10 in the morning and at 10 at night, after his chorus rehearsals in the evening.
Q: Does he have any hobbies or that kind of thing? Does he like to watch movies?
NF: I don’t know much about him personally. I know he loves sports. He loves football. In fact he played football in college and has the singular distinction of having his nose broken by Jackie Robinson who was the first black baseball player. I think that was kind of interesting. He loves football. He is a real viral man and enjoys. He has a son who’s in his early teens and they enjoy each other’s company a great deal. In fact, for Mr. Shaw’s 75th birthday, his son gave him a catcher’s mitt, so I guess he plays catch some. And he likes to walk a lot. He’s a fine swimmer. I don’t know that there’s much time to do that now, but he grew up on the coast of California and I know used to swim a great deal. I don’t know that he still does.
2017 Interview with Nola Frink by Suzanne Shull. The coda to this interview is Nola's memory of his last days.
Interview with Nola Frink, longtime assistant to Robert Shaw, regarding many aspects of working with him and chorus members, and becoming close to the Shaw family. Suzanne Shull, interviewer. Spring, 2017.
Nola Comes to Atlanta
SS: We are talking today with Nola Frink who was the Administrative Assistant for Robert Shaw when he was Music Director of the Atlanta Symphony.
NF: I’d been in the northeast for a dozen years or so, in New England for a while, and very happily there, and then also I taught in New Jersey. And while I was in New Jersey, I worked at the Westminster Choir College – I was the secretary to the President of the college. I had gone there mostly to study with a voice teacher who was on the faculty and in order to survive, I also had secretarial skills and was the secretary to the President of Westminster Choir College.
And while I was there, Robert Shaw came to do a choral workshop, and they were doing the Bach St. Matthew Passion. And I could hear this glorious music being rehearsed across the quadrangle from my office, and I wasn’t attached to any of it. And every day Mr. Shaw would come to the President’s office where I worked and have lunch. And when I talked to him, I found out about his choruses in Atlanta, the Symphony Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and I had always wanted to sing with him. And mainly because I could have the opportunity to sing with Robert Shaw, and then I had family members living in Atlanta, I chose to come to Atlanta.
The first year I was here, I was one of the four soloists in the Bach Easter Oratorio, and in the chorus, we had the option of either purchasing our scores or returning them to the choral library after we had performed the work. And I knew that I had paid for this score because Robert Shaw had autographed it and then said a very nice thing and so I wanted to have it. And I got, I was billed for it after I had already paid for it. So I called his assistant to just say I have a cancelled check and I knew I had paid for that score, and she wasn’t there but this friend that also was on the staff of the symphony said, “What are you doing these days, Nola?” And I said, “I am working out here in the world, and I need to be around musicians – crazy people.” And she said, “Well, come down and take this job we have open at the symphony. It’s the worst job in the house, but take it and don’t ask any questions.” And I was young and foolish at the time and that was intriguing to me, so I took it, and I was the receptionist for just a very short time.
Nola Starts Working with Shaw
And meanwhile, this person who had told me this left to become manager of the Long Beach, California Symphony, and so I could have her job which was Assistant to the President of the Symphony. And then Mr. Shaw’s assistant of many years left, and because I had – one of my main motivating factors for moving to Atlanta was to sing with Robert Shaw, there was no question in my mind which job I wanted. And I remember asking her, I said, “I’m sure Mr. Shaw doesn’t know all of the things you do. Somebody needs to be following you around to see what your job entails.” And she – “I said, something as simple as, oh I don’t know, a seating plan for the chorus.” She said, “Oh, Mr. Shaw would never, never let anyone else do that.”
And so, the week after she left, we were doing, I think it was the Berlioz Damnation of Faust, and he said, “Do a seating plan for that.” And that was –
SS: Was that Eddie Burruss?
NF: Yes. Yeah, and there were never any instructions. There was always jump in the pool and see if you can swim. It was a real adventure.
SS: What year was that?
NF: 1973. Caroline and I said we married him the same year.
SS: You kind of did. December 19, 1973.
NF: Yeah, I started working at the Symphony office in the fall. It was probably September or something like that. So and that’s how it all began. And it was a – it was very difficult but very wonderful all at the same time.
SS: When you first started out, and you were trying to get used to his personality, were there any surprises?
NF: Oh my, yes. Well he – as a friend of mine said, “That job is not exactly a walk on the beach, is it?” And that was very true. He was a perfectionist, and did not wish to be bothered with mundane things. And most of what I did was the part of the mundane.
And I recall the first week that I worked for him, the manager of the Symphony – he was called manager at the time – I think now they call him President, they call that person President, but he said he had some things he wanted me to contact Mr. Shaw and ask him. Mr. Shaw worked in his home studio, and I worked in the symphony offices, but we were in touch by phone, usually early in the morning so that he would be uninterrupted the rest of the day. And so I called Mr. Shaw because the manager wanted the answers right away. I can’t even remember what they were. And Mr. Shaw said – he called me back after I had asked all the questions and he said, “Do you realize how upsetting that is when I’m involved in doing something really important to have to stop and answer questions like that?” And I said, “Oh I’m sorry but if you don’t want me to call you, turn off your phone,” and which he could do. And he did, until I apologized several days later. And that sort of taught me not to interrupt.
But he often would call me about 8 o’clock every morning when I was still at home and would talk about whatever had to be accomplished that day. We were a productive team. We were not easy going in the first years. It was very – it was hard for me to learn to work with someone who – and I was really expected to just kind of – I sort of made the job what I wanted it to be and what my skills were. My predecessor didn’t have musical skills and I did, and he finally had me assisting with auditions and things like that. And so, it was a learning experience, but it was very gratifying.
I changed the kind of numbering system of music. One time – and it would take forever for my predecessor to distribute music because you may have number 1 for one piece of music and number 15 [for another]. But we changed it so that the chorus number of the person became the number of the music they had, so you always knew. And so it was much easier to check out music that way, and it was quicker. And so he was surprised the first time we distributed music, we were ready to go at 7:30 which was the time the chorus started, and he was amazed at that, so I thought, “Oh good. I finally did something right.”
But we really finally developed a very good working relationship. The toughest times always, which I finally figured out, probably many years after I’d been working with him, was that rehearsals were the – that was his pulpit. That was his time to really be teaching and doing, and he was much more frantic – not, well, I can’t say frantic.
SS: Well, he sometimes looked frantic.
NF: Yeah, it was - everything had to really be perfect before the rehearsal began, and that’s when I was always in the hot seat because I was the one who had to get the room ready, be sure the temperature was right, and all of those things, and be sure people were there on time and all of that. And it was always my fault when they were late, no matter whether it was traffic or not. But many times I was the whipping boy. I don’t think we want to say that.
SS: The hatchet lady. You had to be the person that gave the bad news- and that must have been hard because that’s not your personality.
NF: Oh well, no, but I did have to do that a lot and I remember one time - we had an audition committee – the accompanist and then the conductor, Bruce Borton who helped with the auditions some, and Mr. Shaw would always give me sort of an outside number that he wanted in each section, and so we would try to fill up those numbers. And so I told him about this one voice. I said there was one person who was a terrific musician. He nailed the sight reading, and he could sight read anything, and I said it is an absolutely terrible voice. He said, “Well you can always accept musicianship over that kind of thing.” And so this person always sat right in the front row and it was a really terrible voice, and Mr. Shaw said, “We can’t have that.” And so I just had to let this person know that his voice didn’t fit into the ensemble.
Auditioning a 200-voice Chorus
NF: Most people come in and – in a chorus of that size, 200 voices – they aren’t used to being soloists. They are used to being in a chorus. And they would come in and try to sing an art song, or try to sing a solo that they might sing in church of something, and they were not used to being soloists and they would just sound terrible. Then you’d have them vocalize and they would relax and sound like they sounded. And they would think, “Oh this is nothing. They are just testing my range,” and that’s when you could hear the voice. And so it was really interesting but they almost never sang well, in the solo, but if they sang “My Country Tis of Thee,” or something like that, if it was a simple song, they could do it. But they’d come in and try to do an aria or an art song, and it was not what they should do.
SS: Can you talk a little bit about how the group auditions would go?
NF: Well, I loved the group auditions because they were helpful in that you hear each voice consecutively so you sort of hear how you sound in comparison to the other voices around you. But you can also hear the kind of vocalize, the kind of repertoire that we use often would show – you’d have to sing over your break. And I remember one time – this was for a chamber chorus audition and you know I had to audition every year to be in the Chamber Chorus – and it was a simple folk song, “Think on Me,” and you had to go [sings notes] and go over that lift, and everybody would sort of croak at that point. It was really amazing because we’d all thought, “Oh this is so simple,” and then you’d hear this [croak sound].
Someone said, “Well why do we have group auditions. I much prefer a solo audition.” Well, it’s very time-consuming to do 200 singers every year, and you want to hear people every year to be sure they’re keeping their vocalism up for one thing, and so many people who had problems – we tried to warn people if they were singing, if they were having intonation problems and that kind of thing that needed to be corrected.
When I started being on the Audition Committee, I was surprised at what people would come in and sing because I had been trained as a singer, and so I had solo material. Well, most of them come in and say I’m going to sing “America the Beautiful” or something like that.
[When I first came to Atlanta, I came for my first audition.] And so he was still writing about the person who had auditioned before me, so he didn’t look up and didn’t realize that he knew me from Princeton days. And so, “Hello dear, what are you going to sing?” And I said, “I’m going to sing the “Et incarnatus est” from the Mozart Mass in C Minor.” Well, he did a double take, and usually, a person would just sing a few phrases because you could hear the voice in that short amount of time. He made me sing it all the way through. And he came over and shook my hand and I don’t know if it was because of the repertoire choice or because of the way I sounded, but I was very impressed.
Robert Shaw’s Family Life
SS: Let’s talk a little bit about his family life, if you don’t mind.
SS: I was taken by his comment in the film about him when he said, “I never thought about home as a place to go home to.” And so you were around during Caroline Shaw days?
NF: Yes, that was his happiest time in his family life, I think. They were – it was a marriage made in heaven, and so I was very grateful to be, and he considered me a part of the family. I remember one day – in fact, they had - Caroline had brought a child – he was maybe four when they were married. Now let me think.
NF: Yeah, he was born in ’69. He was about four and then after they were married, Thomas was born, and they had a Chinese nanny, and when Mr. Shaw would go out of town to conduct, he always wanted Caroline to go with him, and she felt as though somebody needs to be with the children who speaks English very well and who can drive, and so they were going to hire someone. And I said, “I love the boys. They’re like my nephews.” And so I would stay with them when the Shaws were out of town, and it was a glorious time. I loved it and I – the boys really became my nephews.
SS: For all of us it was a very difficult time when Caroline got sick.
NF: Oh my. Dorothy, the housekeeper, and I – he wanted us there. We were in the hospital room when she died, because we were family. And he was very sad. But I think – we saw him at happy times because he loved – he was able to make music and that seemed to be a wonderful release for him. And at that point he was – we got several college engagements for him and he loved being around kids. And so he wasn’t – I didn’t see him being really horribly – I mean he grieved, certainly. It was a sad time for him, but he did throw himself into his music more and more, I thought.
SS: After she died or during the time?
NF: Well, after, because that was his other love.
Carnegie and France Workshops
And that’s where I would see him most, in a musical situation. And I remember the Carnegie Hall Workshops were so special, well, even before she died, but even more so afterwards because I think that he just threw his whole self into his music making.
After he retired as Music Director of the symphony, the Atlanta Symphony, he had a festival in France every summer. Caroline loved France, and they bought a summer place there, but he couldn’t give up his music in the summer.
And so there was an auditioned chorus of about 60 singers that became the core group of the Carnegie Workshops. And those were the finest – they were mostly all Americans. There were some French people but mostly all Americans, and they were some of the finest choral conductors and singers that he had ever worked with. And since that was the core group, it was like homecoming every January. That France group would get together at Carnegie Hall and it became a very rewarding situation, musically as well as just communally. But they were very important conductors. Well Craig Jessup of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir was one of those singers, and he has a lovely voice. But they all had conducting skills as well as vocal skills.
Preparation and Attention to Time
SS: He was a very regimented person, I think, with a plan, always. And maybe you would like to speak to that.
NF: Well he always wrote out a rehearsal schedule, by the minute, and I’d type those up. I remember – particularly when he had a major, a large work, a major work like the Bach St. Matthew Passion where there was so much repertoire to be rehearsed. He would have it scheduled by the minute and stuck to it very much. Timing was so important to him, and I think it started with – you know he had been with Fred Waring in his beginning years, and they had a radio show every day - and I don’t know whether it was 15 minutes or 30 minutes - but he was so aware of times. And I recall, well, for instance the Christmas Festival. He would have it timed to the minute. And there were other choirs on the program and their timings would not be as close every performance as his would be. And he was very – and he would have to make up some times, if we were broadcasting for instance. He would have to speed up something or slow down something – but he knew how to do that because of his, I guess his radio background prepared him for that.
You know what was so interesting, when I was in junior high, I guess, or high school, I was in the high school band and we went to New York. It must have been for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, and we went to one radio broadcast and it was Fred Waring and “Bob Shaw” was conducting. That was in the days when he was “Bob” Shaw. I thought well that was a sign of things to come.
But I really think it was his radio background that made him so aware of time. We always timed – every concert, the repertoire was timed, by movement, and he was interested to see how it varied from night to night, and it didn’t vary much at all.
SS: So Caroline said one time you could wake him up in the middle of the night and he would know what time it was without looking. Do you believe that?
NF: Well, I don’t know. Probably.
Section 7 –
Warmups – The Shaw Sound
SS: One of things that you could always count on was that the warmups at the rehearsal would be the same every week, pretty much, warmups in a hall, a new hall.
NF: Yeah, well you know what was interesting. After Caroline’s death, I would travel with him. He was in his 80’s at that point and had had medical problems and so I was kind of road manager, nurse, all of those things. And it was so interesting to me. No matter what group he was conducting, and we went to a lot of university situations and then to major orchestras – Minneapolis, Minnesota, Houston, Dallas, all the major American orchestras – and within a very short period of time, he never would say, “You gotta blend,” his exercises would make the sound that became what people would refer to as “the Shaw Sound.” And they were simple exercises, but within minutes, I would say under ten minutes, he would have that sound, and it would be a unanimous sound, and everybody was blending. There would not be voices sticking out. And I really think it was the methods he had developed that were so effective.
SS: And you mean that word “blend”, right?
NF: He just knew how to make it happen, by the techniques that he had honed.
SS: So, do you think he just taught people to listen better?
NF: I think that was it, yes. And you know the exercises where you’d have to go up a half step in 16 beats – something like that. That’s just training the ear, and we very rarely ever went flat because we had been trained to go sharp.
SS: Yeah, I was always astounded that we could hold a key forever.
NF: I know, and have a dissonant note being played on the piano while you were proceeding up 16 beats, but it really trained the ears so easily. But I think you have to have a conductor who’s got a good ear to pull that off.
SS: And he knew what he wanted to hear. I think sometimes conductors don’t realize that they have that capacity to insist. Maybe they don’t know what sound they want. I don’t know, but he definitely knew what he wanted.
NF: And I think it was based on his mother’s voice and his sister’s voice because they had sweet, lyric voices. And I remembered hearing him one time in a workshop situation. He was comparing voices that he would choose over say somebody like Roger Wagner. Roger Wagner might have chosen a more operatic sound, and he would choose, I guess, more like a folk voice, just a simple pure voice that was not, that didn’t have a lot of –well, I don’t know how to define it other than just a sweet quality to it.
Responsibilities of Singers
NF: You know, when you think of how many hours we put in to be in the chorus – I remember one person calling up, saying, “You know, if you have more to do in a day than to feed your dog, you can’t be in this chorus. It requires too much time.” Because it would be three nights, three consecutive nights of rehearsals with – no. One rehearsal with piano on a Monday, and then – this is a performance week – and Tuesday and Wednesday nights would be with orchestra, and Thursday, Friday and Saturday would be performances. And then at Christmas time, there would be Thursday, Friday and two performances on Saturday, oh and Wednesday night too. Performances. Five performances in a week. But we survived it.
SS: Well, everybody did it because they loved it. No one was paid.
NF: I remember one time – you know, often people had work schedules that would prevent them from coming to a rehearsal. I mean they could find a way not to come occasionally. Well, but when we were to sing for the Olympics, the Olympics people only wanted a chorus of 150, and I said, “Well, we’re 200.” And they said, “Well, we want 150.” So I announced to the chorus that “We can only have a chorus of 150, so if you want to sing this, you cannot miss any rehearsals,” and nobody missed any rehearsals. And we had – so they had 200 singers from us. It was amazing. I thought well you can do what you want to do, I suppose. But the people were, the chorus people, were so dedicated. They would come from Alabama, South Carolina, North Georgia. I don’t know how they did it.
SS: I don’t either. The drive home.
NF: Oh - but it was very rewarding.
Shaw and the Volunteer or Amateur Chorus
SS: Well, let’s go back just a minute to the warmups. We off the record had been talking about how no one else really warms up a choir the way Shaw used to do. And he had a reason for that.
NF: Right. He expected people to already do their own vocalizing, whatever warmed up their voice, on their own before they got to rehearsals. And his warmups were designed to make you really listen. And then his rehearsals were never – we never sang full voice until we had the pitches right, the rhythms right and everything lined up properly – until all of the technical aspects had been cleaned up. And then you would finally - he would finally let us really sing full voice, or half voice until we were really ready for it. But he never pushed the voice. It was to save the vocal gold until – and also it made. I remember one time in the Carnegie Workshops we had sung half voice – we had count sung so much and some very quietly. And once we let it go, I remember seeing this tenor with just tears streaming down his face because you finally got to let it out. And it was so much more dramatic and so much more beautiful because you had cleaned it up before you really sang. And that was always an exciting thing, to finally hear it. So I know some people who love to just sing loud all the time felt as though they were being held back. But it was so productive, and the performances would be so much better as a result.
SS: Why do you think that he could take an amateur or choir, none of whom had ever worked with him before, for three days, and make it an event of their lifetime, that they never forgot? Do you that was part of it, the vocal gold stuff?
NF: I think so, and also, he brought so much more than just musicianship. I don’t know – he had so much charisma, and you knew you were in the presence of a master. And it’s been interesting to me – so many people who have sung with him and have sung with other conductors – they always list that they sang with Robert Shaw, because that was the highlight. It was the highlight in my life, and yours too, probably.
SS: Sure. It seems to me that the better we knew a piece, the more he taught about his insight into the piece. He never started explaining anything to us. We always had to learn it first. Then we’d have some understanding.
NF: Yeah. It was so revealing to me. The choruses in France and Carnegie Hall were so more advanced than most symphony choruses. They were just professional singers, mostly, or conductors. And he could bring so much more to something, the better prepared people were. And so he was just kind of in his element there because he was not – he was more or less speaking to his peers. And in other situations it sounds like he’s a big power hungry guy but he wasn’t like that. I mean he really taught the people that he had. But the better you knew something and the better the chorus was prepared, the more he could bring to it
Interview with Nola about his last days and death.
SS: A lot of people are curious about his last days, and you were around for just about all of that time. It seems to me that there was a warning. He had a warning in December of '98 when he was conducting the Messiah.
Nola: Yes, with the Atlanta Symphony and Chamber Chorus. And his musical assistant, Norman Mackenzie, had to finish those performances as well as I recollect. But, he still was feeling as though some days were good and some days bad and he was scheduled to conduct the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in a performance of the Brahms Requiem, for which he had transliterated [translated] the text into English. And my office-mate, Jeff Baxter, and I would go out to Mr. Shaw's house every afternoon and Shaw would come down. He was still in his bed-clothes because he was not real well at that point, but he was really - had in his mind finishing this translation of the Brahms Requiem into English.
And so I would, in my meager piano skills, would play through and sing the soprano line one time, and then play through it and sing the alto line in whatever movement we were on. [Jeff sang the tenor part and Mr. Shaw the bass part in each movement.] And Jeff was fluent in German and Shaw was trying to - even though the German word order was so different than the English word order. It was very interesting to be working with him at that time because they were both - Mr. Shaw would try to have a vowel sound that would be easy to sing in a certain range. And there were just so many considerations that I had never considered.
And what was striking to me, he finished the final movement, the seventh movement, which - and the text was something like, "Blessed are they who die in the lord. They rest from their labors and their works follow after them." And shortly after he finished that, he was gone. And I always thought, he wrote his epitaph.
So that was in - that was probably in December of '98. And then he was having real health problems at that point.
SS: Was it heart?
Nola: No, it was a subdural hematoma - bleeding on the surface of the brain. And he spoke to his doctor, and the doctor said something like, "You may die. Where do you want to be?" He said,” I want to be with my son.”
And his son was finishing a senior project at Yale University, and he was acting in and I think had directed Beckett's "End Game" which is all about death. It was real 'down time'. And so I accompanied Mr. Shaw to Yale. At that point, I was actually staying in his home and being sort of nurse, and, you know, this is the time you take this medication, and that sort of thing.
And, so we flew to New Haven, Connecticut, and I remember he hit his head on the top of the plane, you know, the overhead, and that sort of triggered this problem that he already had. And, so, we were seated - it was a small auditorium, and we were right in the front row and… Mr. Shaw always was a very light sleeper. He sometimes when he would be at Symphony Hall, he would take a nap between rehearsals, and I would just lightly tap on his dressing room door and he would awaken quickly, and he would be up.
Well, he went to sleep, it seems like, during this play, and I tried to rouse him and couldn't. And Thomas was on stage and he saw that something was happening, and his room-mate - it was apparent that he had had a stroke - and so they sped up the pace of the play, and by the time it was over, the medics were there and the ambulance and they took him to the hospital.
They had him on machines. They didn't have his end-of-life wishes, and so we had to. His step-son brought the information that was necessary, brought that up the next morning, and I flew out that morning, so I wasn't there when he died. And I was grateful for that, somehow.
But Thomas, his son - only one person could be in the room with him at a time - and, Thomas just spent a vast amount of time, and I think he was just worn out after a while and just emotionally drained, and he said, he came out and said, “Nola, don't you want to go in and see Dad” and I thought, “Oh dear, I don't know what to say.” We'd had a professional relationship, and I’d never thought about being with him when he was dying.
And, so, I sang to him.
SS: What did you sing?
Nola: I sang mostly spirituals. And he and I - both of us had grown up in the home of an evangelical minister, so we knew all of these gospel songs, and we used to sing them, and he would sometimes sing in a country voice. But I sang spirituals, I think, mostly, and he would look at me and I could sort of tell that he was either saying you're flat or will you shut up, you know. But I really think he was trying to say, get them to turn off the machines, and just let him go.
Anyway, many times when we were in New York at the Carnegie Hall workshops, I would always grab his arm when we’d cross the street because I just don't feel comfortable doing that without. And he would twist my ring as he held my hand. And he did that. He grabbed my hand and twisted my ring, which was a kind of way of communicating in a way.
SS: While he was almost in a coma?
Nola: Well, yeah. He couldn't speak, but he was obviously able to think. He was aware. I didn't stay with him long and then Thomas returned, and he was with him. And then his daughter came the next morning. I think she was with him as he died, and I know Alex was there, too.
SS: So, Alex is his step-son. And what was his daughter's name?
SS: She is a singer, too, isn't she?
Nola: No, she's a psychiatrist. She was from the first marriage. And Thomas was with him when he died. But I was already back in Atlanta. Well I came back. We knew that a memorial service was going to be inevitable, and I had called his sister in California and let them know what was happening. And it was just - it was a tough time.
SS: I’m sure it was for you. It was a tough time for a lot of us but I think that that memorial service was really cathartic for a lot people. And we saw many friends we hadn't seen in a long time, and everybody just had a chance to be together and praise his life.
Nola: Yeah, I remember - do you remember, his minister, Allison Williams? I remember this marvelous prayer, I think it was Mother Theresa's prayer. They said to her, “Well, what do you say to God when you talk to him? How do you pray to God?” And she said, “I don't pray, I listen.” “And, well what does God say to you?” He said she said, “He doesn't speak, He listens.” And I just thought that was so moving, and that was his final prayer. After a few seconds, he said, “Amen.”
And that was just amazing to me. It was so moving.
SS: When we did the Bernstein Requiem – the Mass, I remember every night at the end of the Mass, he would say, "The Mass has ended, go in peace." And he would break up, every night. He was quite...
Nola: He was very emotional, I remember one time sitting with him when he was listening to a person who was auditioning, I think for the role of Porgy, when we were doing Porgy and Bess. And, it was not a glorious voice, but it was such a communicative voice, and I looked over and his tears were just streaming down his face. And that person didn't do the role but I'm not sure he could have handled it vocally, but it was so touching to me to see how emotional he was about the singing voice or the communicative skills of that person.
SS: Well, I guess we could go on and on about this.
Nola: I've said all I know.
SS: I think that it's going to be wonderful for people to hear this.