Interview with Nola Frink 1992

Nola served as Robert Shaw's administrative assistant for 26 years spanning the time that he was Music Director of the ASO until his death in 1999.  

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.