Interview with Phyllis Speirs, voice teacher, coach, conductor, and teacher at the Cleveland Institute of Music, Cleveland, Ohio, and the Fine Arts Association in Willoughby, Ohio. By Suzanne Shull, June 15, 2017.
PS: My name is Phyllis Speirs and at the time I was singing with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, I was Phyllis Farinacci, and Shaw always seemed to enjoy that name – the last name, Farinacci. I now am a voice teacher, a coach and a conductor. I teach at the Cleveland Institute of Music and also at the Fine Arts in Willoughby.
SS: So what was your first impression of Shaw, when you first met him and first sang with him?
PS: Well I was quite young. I was like 19 years old, and I auditioned for the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus not knowing much because I came from a background – I was an Italian and I came from a background that we loved music, of course, and I was playing the accordion then. I started the accordion when I was seven years old, and I played until I was 16, and I remember playing concertos actually because I was quite good actually. And in high school I was very active vocally, and I also conducted, was conducting in high school. So I sort of got involved with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus through a friend of mine who was auditioning, and I said, “Yeah, I think I’ll do that.” So I did. And I got in.
SS: You were 19?
PS: I was 19. I was the youngest one. I think I was the youngest one although that may be – there’s one other girl that said she was, but I think I was. I was used as an advertisement for TV for the chorus. At the time we were going to - on this tour to Santo Domingo, the Pablo Casals Festival in San Juan [Puerto Rico] and then New York City with Pablo Casals conducting. So I was thrilled because I had never been actually introduced to this kind of thing before, and it just absolutely caught me. I was so proud and so into it, if you will, because I was very musical person. It just comes naturally to me. And so I auditioned and lo and behold, before long we were going on tour.
And the first tour I took with him – he took I think 100 – according to this clipping I have, he took 104 – was it 104 people out of the whole chorus? I think in 1962 we traveled to San Juan and participated in the Pablo Casals Festival. And then from there we went to - which was a total wonderful experience because we got to meet Pablo Casals, kind of in a casual way in the rehearsal hall. At the time I think his wife was his student, who was a cellist, and she was like 32 and he was like, I don’t know, 80 something? Something like that. It was very interesting to all of us who were kind of young and impressionable.
Then, from that tour, we went to Santo Domingo. Now, Santo Domingo at the time was kind of in a revolution* or it was beginning there. Do you know about that? It was kind of, it was an iffy - the air of the revolution. And there’s a whole thing in the - you could look that up in the Wikipedia or whatever. And so we were well guarded there.
Our performance – I think we were doing the Shubert Mass in G, if I’m not mistaken, and outside, there were militia all around the building. And then they took us up to the – what do you call the hotel near, the airport hotel at the – and we had a party and of course we were guarded in the lift that took us up to the room or the hotel. And it was very eerie. We came down in the morning, had breakfast, and we had whatever they had for breakfast because we didn’t have much time, and we all got sick, within – as soon as we got to New York.
And New York was our next stop because Pablo Casals was conducting the St. Matthew Passion. We all had paregoric in our pockets because we were all sick, and we were trying to attribute – what to attribute it to but it was probably the ice cubes in the water, that we were told not to drink the water obviously but we were down there drinking and having breakfast and what not. We don’t know for sure but one of the doctors that was on tour with us gave us paregoric and we all had paregoric in our pockets. It was horrible. And we all were allowed to bring someone at the time because it was quite cheap. I remember bringing my sister. It was only $200. So and – she traveled on a different plane though. They took the spouses and they traveled on a different aircraft.
SS: How did New York go?
PS: Well, New York was iffy. Some people were sick in the hotels and some were not. We brought – we brought little bottles in our pocket on stage, and it went well! I mean it was, there was enough of us to get through it, and Pablo Casals conducted. He came from – and conducted the St. Matthew Passion. What a thrill that was though. I mean, even though we were sick and not feeling too well, it was a time, musically, that you can’t put words to, and you’ll never relive again, you know what I’m saying? It was a wonderful time.
SS: He [Shaw] had an expression that he’d use about how each performance was unique in that there would never be that assemblage of people, as performers or listeners, ever again. And so he – I think that was a way of bringing a little bit of a magical aspect to a performance after we were dead tired from rehearsing all week on something. He would say things like that.
PS: Yes. When we were in San Juan rehearsing, it was intense. We were there for just a short period of time, and people wanted to see what was the sights of Santa Domingo [San Juan], and so some people were late, and he was furious, and that whole routine of getting mad, and we all got through that, of course, and left there, going to Santo Domingo and performing.
I remember being introduced to works I’d never heard before, I mean, works that I have never done and being totally being taken by them. It was so absorbing to me. And the way he conducted and the way he treated people at the time – this was early on - I mean he gave everybody the sense that they were important. Every individual in that alto section was as important as every other individual. And that sense made you feel so comfortable, yet always wanting, motivated. It motivated you to be the best you can be. He had that ability. Very few people have that ability to do that. It is built in.
You could learn some of it. We took away a lot from him, as students, as singers, as people who were not only getting involved in the education aspect of music or like me, performance. We were all involved in that, and we all took away something that was remarkable, each one of us, and used, as best as we could. We all talk about it all the time, because I conduct a choir so I bring that certain thing – certain things that he would do, and it transforms or it communicates in a certain way that wouldn’t otherwise – people just conducting for or whatever it may be. It’s so fluid – he was so fluid in his conducting, and yet, he wasn’t over conducting. Some people would over conduct. I mean I saw many of them with the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus who would just over conduct. Shaw never over conducted, but he’d give you that sense of where he was going. How does he – how does one do that? It’s a subtlety that’s built into someone that you see.
SS: He seemed to have a locomotion about him, a way of dealing with rhythm
PS: And he was very big on rhythm. I mean, we would get sheets, every other week or every month. We would get sheets on rhythm. We would get all kinds of diction, vowels, and that’s another thing he seemed to know a lot about. And that makes a big difference in voice, by the way – how you articulate, enunciate and pronounce words, and he knew all of that. And this is the reason why I think he got that kind of sound that everybody was looking for, that nobody knew how to get.
SS: Someone said that he was looking for a sound like his mother’s voice.
PS: Could be.
SS: And it seems to me like he knew – couldn’t always say what he wanted but he certainly knew what he didn’t want and he’d make it very clear.
PS: He would make it very clear what he didn’t want, of course. And like Betty [Meyers, also from Cleveland Chorus] said, the sound that he wanted was the sound that he heard, the sound that made sense to him, that was deep within him. And it’s the sound we all took away with us when we left. And now, we’re still looking for it, because nobody else seems to have it. How does that happen?
* The Dominican Civil War took place between April 24, 1965, and September 3, 1965, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. It started with a coup, followed by a United States intervention in the conflict, which later transformed into an Organization of American States occupation of the country. New elections were held in 1966, and later the same year international troops departed from the country.