Interview with Norman Mackenzie by Howard Dyck, 1992

NM:            My name is Norman Mackenzie.  I live in Atlanta.  I’m on the keyboard staff of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and I’m Mr. Shaw’s accompanist for both of the Atlanta Symphony Choruses and the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, and his staff accompanist in France every summer.  And I also have a church job there in town, Trinity Presbyterian Church which has a – what we hope’s a wonderful music program that is growing and thriving.  So he keeps me very busy down there.

Q:            How long have you worked with Mr. Shaw?

NM:            I worked with Mr. Shaw for about six and a half years now.  I moved to Atlanta about seven years ago, and he was instrumental in my coming to that church actually there.  That’s Caroline Shaw’s church and they really had a marvelous music program going on there, that I knew nothing about prior to moving there.  I was in Philadelphia where I grew up, in suburban Philadelphia, and was at a large Episcopal church, the Church of the Redeemer, Bryn Mawr, and was working with several of the professional choruses and playing with the orchestra occasionally and doing some other very nice satisfying sorts of things.  And I had just finished a masters’ degree in – I started as a piano major in undergraduate school and then went on for an organ major in college and eventually got into some choral conducting as well at Westminster Choir College.  And he goes there every summer, or used to go there every summer, principally to do a two-week workshop, and we knew each other very vaguely from one of those things.

 But he had called up on behalf of the church actually, Charles Schisler, who was a dean of the college at the time and said, “Is there anybody who’s come through your department recently that we ought to consider for – we really want to get somebody fine for this church.”  And to make a long story short, after several twists and turns, that’s how I got down there and he got very interested in my coming down and was needing an additional keyboard player for the symphony at that time, a position for which I had to audition, but nonetheless he was very supportive of my coming and being involved in that.

And so I started – finally I became a principal with keyboard with the symphony for four or five seasons, and I started with him in that way, doing more keyboard work with the orchestra than with the chorus.  And he sort of eased me into working with the chorus more and more as he got to know me.  And then his accompanist of some 12 or 13 years left and the following morning I got a phone call, and the rest, as they say, is history.  So I started working with those choruses down there and now I’m happy to say that it’s my good fortune that he asked me to go other places with him, and we’re very used to reading each other’s minds and working together.

Q:            Now, that strikes me as something that’s really important as far as the accompanist is concerned, is being able to read the conductor’s mind, and having observed you these days, it seems to me that you have him figured out pretty well.  Is there a kind of methodology that he follows that you are able to, that you’ve figured out, or is it sort of intuitive on your part?

NM:            Well, I hope it’s a little bit of both.  It certainly comes from working with him as regularly as I do and over a period of years.  He certainly has a very intense and effective style of rehearsal management.  I think it’s probably the most effective in the world today as far as choral music is concerned.  And he thinks extremely logically during a rehearsal, and once you get a little bit used to that, it’s really not as difficult to follow where he’s going to begin after he’s made the speech, as people might think, looking at it.

One of the things that he’s justly famous for is his minute analyzation of the score.  And one of the ways he analyzes the score is to group everything, all of the principal thematic material, into groups of two to four to eight bar phrases.  And once you know that he’s done that, and once you’ve seen his score and worked with him as much as I have, when he stops the chorus and he’s asking them for something in particular, and he works on one process at a time, whether it’s rhythm or diction, enunciation of text or metric qualities in a particular section, intonation, whatever, he allows the chorus to perfect each of these items one at a time.

So he really works in a very logical way, and when he stops them and while he’s making a speech, as an accompanist, I’ve got half an ear listening to what he’s saying, what he’s asking the chorus to do next and how I might be able to facilitate that by the way I play.  And the other side of my brain is looking back and saying, all right, where would be the most logical place that he might start and we’ve – it’s funny, but we’ve worked together so much that we do almost – we almost have a sort of mental telepathy about that now.  And many times I’ll play the chord before he’s even told me.

There’s a famous thing last year when we were here in the Brahms Requiem which is a piece we’ve done a lot.  I have not worked with him actually on Missa Solemnis all that much, I think just once before this particular time.  But in the Brahms, there were several times during the tapings at the rehearsal – that one time I played a chord and he looked at the camera and said, “How does he know where to begin?”  It’s just the sort of a thing we’ve developed that’s – it’s very satisfying in a rehearsal situation.


Q:            Do you confer with him between rehearsals?

NM:            Well, we do, but I think that’s an interesting kind of a thing too.  Several people have asked me that, and I know they ask Ann Jones that.  It’s not as though we sit there for hours after a rehearsal or between rehearsals conferring about specific things in the music.  If he has, and many times he does, something that particularly strikes him that he wants to change or that he wants me to be alerted for at the next rehearsal, I’ll get a phone call.  But otherwise, he just kind of expects me to come pretty much prepared and able to follow what he’s going to do and hopefully, I do.

Q:            How does he expect you to play?  Are you to be a pianist?  Are you to be the orchestra?

NM:            Well certainly both.  And my own philosophy of rehearsal accompanying is that first of all, the pianist has got to have a knowledge of the total score.  You can’t just play from what is the piano – I mean, I do play from a piano reduction sometimes in rehearsal and sometimes I play from the full score.  But it’s extraordinarily helpful to be familiar with what the orchestra is going to do and what the choir is going to hear from – in the case of the Missa Solemnis, for example, what they’re going to hear from principal voices in the orchestra at any given moment, the strings or the winds or the solo violin or the trumpet and timpani, whatever.  And sometimes it’s not in the piano reduction.   So, you get out your full score and you say, well this is what they’re going to hear so I better play it that way.  Or the predominant thing here is the tenor solo, so even though it’s not in the piano reduction, I better play the tenor solo and of course he’ll ask for that if I don’t so it, so I just do it, hopefully before I get to rehearsal.

But then I think secondly, you must play extremely musically, and if you play beautifully, the choir’s going to sing beautifully, or at least be encouraged more often than not to sing beautifully, and if you play mechanically, like a rehearsal accompanist, they’re going to kind of sing that way, so hopefully I try to do both of those things.

Q:            You find that he’s easy to follow?

NM:            Oh I find he’s very easy to follow, yeah.  His technique is very clear and his gesture is marvelously oriented for the singer, but also for the orchestra and for me as an accompanist.  And yeah, I think it’s very clear to me, again, possibly, because I’ve worked with him so much, but I find it’s very clear what he wants at any time, much more so than many conductors I’ve worked with.

Q:            We’re talking to an awful lot of people who have sung with him over the years.  But you have also worked with him in the orchestral context.  How does the orchestra enjoy him?

NM:            Well, I’m getting a charge out of watching this wonderful orchestra that we have this week, the Orchestra at St. Luke’s, doing the Missa Solemnis with him because that’s an orchestra that – it’s a young sort of a band of lots of talented people and they are an eager orchestra to begin with but they are obviously having a sensational time listening to the sounds that he gets out of the chorus, first of all, which is something you don’t hear all the time, even in this town, and then following his insight into the score.

There’s just nobody in the world that knows the ins and outs of the Missa Solemnis one one hundredths as well as Robert Shaw.  He’s conducted it more times than anybody in the universe.  He’s analyzed it more carefully.  He’s pored over the philosophical implications of the work more than anybody.  It’s nearer and dearer to his heart than almost any other piece I’ve seen him do, with the possible exception of the Bach B Minor Mass, but I think it may even be more important to him than that piece, and I think the orchestra senses that. And every once in a while he’ll stop and tell a little story about a certain section or create for them an image of what Beethoven is describing through the chorus and through the sound that he wants from them, what is happening in the particular text of the mass at that moment which they don’t have in front of them.  And so from that standpoint, I think they’re getting a much more well-rounded picture of the work than they would with a conductor who didn’t have that kind of an orientation.  I think they very much enjoy it.

Q:            That gives a lie to the theory that orchestra players just want to be told whether to play loud or soft or fast or slow.

NM:            Well yes, it probably does.  I’d like to think so.  I certainly know some orchestral players who want just to be told that, but fortunately, this doesn’t seem to be an orchestra that is.  They seem to be willing to go beyond that.

Q:            So you see yourself staying in Atlanta, which is a smaller town than Philadelphia, obviously?

NM:            Atlanta’s a wonderful town, and it has a wonderful orchestra now, thanks in large part to what Mr. Shaw has done there for 22 or 3 years now.  I didn’t – yes I do see myself staying there for a while.  I certainly want to continue to work with him in every way I can.  In addition to this sort of thing, I have other delightful experiences with him.  Stephen Paulus, for example, our composer in residence down there with the symphony now, is writing me an organ concerto, and Mr. Shaw and I are going to premier that in March.  So, I have not only choral and orchestral but solo things to do with him.  And I’m certainly – I’ve got to say this for the tape – I am certainly a far, far better choral conductor myself than I was five years ago, having watched him and worked with him so closely.  It can’t help but, if you have any smarts at all, so it’s going to rub off and make your own choir sound better.  I’m glad to say that’s happened, so as long as he’s willing to give it, I’m glad to help take it.

Q:            ——(Audio unintelligible) Could we try one more thing?  Could we ask you?  We’re asked most everyone the flip side of the coin here of Mr. Shaw’s personality, how people have experienced him.  You’ve been around him a lot.  Are there instances where people have walked out of rehearsals just absolutely angry with him and fed up with his approach or don’t want to count sing yet again or they don’t think something works? ——

NM:            No, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone walk out of a rehearsal when Robert Shaw was conducting.  You certainly, I’m sure, will hear the occasional story of Robert Shaw walking out of a rehearsal, which I believe also has not happened when I’ve been around.  But I understand it happened some prior to that.  And he – there are famous stories about the short fuse that he has with relation to detail when something isn’t going well with the choir.  He just, it’s – what happens at that Monday night rehearsal is a part of every fiber of his being, and he demands the same involvement and the same intensity from every single person in the room that he himself puts into it.  And so if a particular person does not understand that kind of involvement and that kind of commitment, then perhaps they’re not going to understand everything that he does and the way he works for it and the precision and the concentration that he demands from the choir, and I can understand that that can get tiresome.

But almost everyone that I ever know that has worked with him that I’ve talked to in choir knows that he is incredibly more demanding of himself than he is of the group.  And when he’s upset and when he’s short with people, it’s in the service of the music.  It’s when he knows they can do so much better and they are not doing it for some reason.  And I’ve just observed that he’s so incredibly well prepared himself and he’s so hard on himself when something doesn’t go well that most of the singers I know in any of his choruses would just if he told them – I mean they love him – and certainly they probably get annoyed with him from time to time and they probably get mad at him and he gets mad at them.  But the end result is so worthwhile and it’s on such a different level than almost any other choral experience ever that they can have that they are willing to just do anything for him.

And if something happens and there’s a little awkwardness in rehearsal, it’s quickly forgotten and you go on and you make music and the results are well worth any little thing.  As a matter of fact, if he told his Atlanta chorus, “All right, run to the front of the stage and jump off into the house,” they wouldn’t hesitate.  They’d just jump right off. 

So, I think if I had the answer to what makes him tick, I’d be a lot smarter than I am.  He’s a fascinating, fascinating individual and the kind of whatever it is that makes Robert Shaw Robert Shaw, whatever his force of personality is in addition to just his musical integrity and his knowledge of what he is doing, whatever his particular force of personality that just brings that kind of commitment and that kind of sound out of people is something that’s not explainable.  And that’s why you have to experience it.

But as he would say, music is something that you can’t talk about.  It’s an art of communication.  And what he wants to do is kind of get out of the way of the miracle.  He wants to prepare everything so thoroughly that he can kind of in the performance, as he says, get out of the way of the miracle and watch the dove descend.  And if you know anything about him at all, you know that’s a real part of his makeup and his being, and I think anybody would forgive a little shortness of temper here and there in service of that sort of thing.

Q:            He’s officially retired now, at least as far as conducting the Atlanta Symphony is concerned, but he carries on a pace that I think is as hectic as ever and is doing an awful lot of recording.  What – is this a compulsion, an obsession?  What is it that drives him?

NM:            Well, it’s very true that he’s retired and his retirement’s a technicality.  He’s probably busier now than he ever has been and in some ways I think he’s happier now than he’s been for a long time because, although I think he was very pleased and proud and happy to see the Atlanta orchestra and chorus progress to the level that it did and it is still doing and that really consumed his efforts for a while.  He now is free to accept – he’s a little bit like a kid in a candy shop.  He can accept engagements all over the place now.  He’s not tied to the Atlanta orchestra schedule, even though he does conduct a number of weeks of concerts every year as emeritus and still works very closely with – it’s still his chorus, and more often than not on Monday night, he’s still there.  So he is tied to that to some extent.

But he is just very, very pleased and concerned about his France festival and the kind of music that he can promote there, in a totally different setting than he finds in professional situations in this country where the people really are all excellent musicians but they go over there out of a love of – a total commitment and love of music making, of choral music, to study with somebody who is the acknowledged choral master of the age at this point, in a setting that is remote from the every day cares that we all have here and the traffic, noise and everything else.  New York is a perfect example.  And goes to sing a Palestrina Mass or a Bach B. Minor Mass or a Victoria O Vos Omnes motet in a twelfth century Romanesque church of unbelievable beauty and an unbelievable acoustic.  These are some of the things that are really of intense interest to him now and it’s a different kind of a side of things than he’s been doing for twenty years.  He’s mainly been concentrating on the sort of thing that we’re doing this week, the great orchestral choral repertoire.  So that is one thing that’s driving him, the perfection of that, that educational thing in France and transmitting, really transmitting to as many skillful people as possible some of his techniques, in settings like that or at workshops that he does around the country.

And the other thing that’s driving him, I think, is really his wish to record with the latest technology as much of his legacy as possible.  And so Telarc has been admirably assisting him in that over the past 10 to 15 years.  And they’ve really produced some fabulous landmark recordings of the choral orchestral repertoire.  And as long as there’s another piece to record, he will keep going and indeed, I expect he’ll keep going until he can’t go anymore.  He’ll drop off the podium one day, I guess.  But he doesn’t know how to do it any other way.  It’s just full out all the time and it’s hard to explain what makes a man function that way but we’re all sure glad he does.  And we want to see him continue.  We want to help him as much as we can.