Robert (Bob) Woods interview with Suzanne Shull, 2017
Robert Woods is a classical music producer. He is a founder and former president of the independent record label Telarc International Corporation.
Woods has won 13 Grammy Awards, with seven as solo awards for Producer of the years, Classical and six as producer in collaboration with others including two each for Best Classical Album and Best Orchestral Performance, as well as Best Surround Sound Album and Best Classical Crossover Album.
This interview took place in June, 2017 at his his preservation studio in Beechwood, Ohio where he was digitally archiving recordings of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
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RW: So here I sit with Suzanne Shull, in my preservation studio in Beachwood, Ohio, suburb of Cleveland. And it's rather interesting because within the last month, I just finished, I would say, four years of off and on preservation work on the Atlanta Symphony's radio broadcasts from when they started in 1974 until the end of the end of the open-reel tape era which covered all the performances that Robert Shaw did then. And they are all live broadcast performances.
My relationship with Shaw was that of producing his commercial recordings which we did for Telarc, starting in 1978 with The Firebird [by Russian-born composer Igor Stravinsky], and going until we did the Stabat Mater of Dvorak in 1998. He passed away in 1999, and we finished that just around Halloween at the end of the year, which was an incredible experience of having worked with him for all those years.
But I first got to know the man as a student at the Blossom Music Center in 1968 when he came to handle the choral program. And I was ecstatic with the ability to be there and work with a man whom I had heard about and whose recordings I had listened to time and time again. And I had just graduated from college at that time and was not really knowing what I wanted to do with myself. And getting to know him was incredible.
I guess there is a good story to tell about when I really got to know Robert Shaw from the inside-out instead of the outside-in. And this happened in 1970 at the Blossom Festival when he was there again. In fact, I believe he was there in 1969 and 1970. We did some really fun things, the Haydn Creation being one of them.
But this summer was the summer that George Szell died, and we were doing a performance of the Bach St. Matthew Passion which was probably a piece that was most near and dear to Robert Shaw's heart of anything in the repertoire. And to have the performances of that coincide with Szell's passing was not exactly a terribly good thing. Shaw didn't exactly have the nicest love affair with George Szell all the time, but he certainly respected the man. And the man certainly did a tremendous favor to Robert in taking him under his wing in the way he did, which, with George Szell, that meant torturing him terribly for a number of years, but at the same time giving him this opportunity to really learn and hone his skills as an orchestral conductor.
And that was a magnificent transition for Shaw, coming from his church background, to his glee-club background to - all of the Fred Warring stuff is what I meant by glee-club - and then his own choral work. But the discipline in the orchestra in opening up that whole area of orchestral/choral repertoire was an amazing thing which he started of course way before he met Szell but he really honed his craft in those years.
So, we get to a rehearsal of the St. Matthew, and Szell had just died, and Robert walks into said rehearsal, and there are a couple of instrumentalists missing from the rehearsal that day. And he went ballistic in a way I'd seen him do one other time after that, but he was so furious that they weren't there. What he was really saying was, I’ve just lost this person who was a major factor in my life, and you little bastards are not here to be at this rehearsal, and I can't stand that lack of professionalism. And he ripped anybody and everybody in shreds. They weren't there to be ripped to shreds but he was just sort of sharing it with everyone, shall we say. And what he did was just say, screw this. I'm not going to do it. And he stomped off. We were at the far east end of Kent, Ohio, and he had his hotel at the far west end of Kent, and he stomped and walked all the way back to his hotel, and that was that.
And we're all sitting there and I'm going, I have a nice solo in that and I’m doing the duet that comes at the end of the piece with Lynn Harrell playing viola da gamba and I'm going like, I'm not gonna lose this opportunity. And everybody didn't want to lose the opportunity, not just for selfish reasons like myself, but you know, we wanted to do that performance. We were having an incredible time with it and the rehearsals were magnificent. Eddie Burrus [Robert Shaw’s assistant in the early years] was working with him then. I didn't know her all that well, but I talked to her and I said, is there anything we can do? I said, Is there anything I can do? I'd be inclined to go to his hotel this evening and see if I couldn't talk to him about, you know, I’d be in touch with all of the musicians here, instrumental as well as choral, and promise and make sure I've got the commitment from everybody that we will be here for the rehearsal tomorrow that we have, and that there will not be anybody missing. In fact, whatever the rehearsal that is at X time, we will be here in our seats one half-hour before that rehearsal begins without exception. And that's sort of a punishment, and I hope that everybody will do it.
She said, "Well, Bobby, I don't know." And I'm going, I don't know. I'm kind of scared out of my mind. I don't really know the guy yet. He's talked to me. He likes me. He appreciates my singing, and that's nice. And I’d go to the hotel, and Eddie suggested I might first go to the local drug store and buy a handful of paperback novels that looked to be nice blood-thirsty kind of writing to purge his anger and a couple of six-packs, in fact maybe more than a couple of six-packs. So I did. She told me what room number he was in. I went up to the room. It must be at this point in time about eight o'clock at night, and I knocked on the door. No response. I knocked on the door a little bit louder, being careful - I didn't want to be too loud. No response. Knocked on the door a little bit louder again. I heard, I thought, a very clear grunt, and I then went into what I would call a soliloquy, cause I knew there was not going to be a conversation with the man. So I said, X, Y, Z. We want this to happen. We have put a lot of time in this. You put a tremendous amount of time in this. It's a very tough time right now. The performance is needed.
And I did my best song and dance pitch I could come up with and again promised that everybody would be there when they're supposed to be there and that was it. I told him when I left, that I was leaving, so he probably wouldn't be afraid to open the door, because he didn't want to talk to anybody, I'm sure. Anyway, the next day, we're all there. We're ready to go and hoping that he's actually gonna show up. And, he does. He stomped on the podium, went through one more tirade of how unprofessional not being there when you're supposed to be there kind of thing is and when he was done with that, then we went at it.
And that rehearsal and the ensuing performance were something that we'll never forget. I mean there were things that the man could do with a piece like that that were just exceptional.
Shaw’s Connection with Humanity
RW: What is that exceptional thing with Robert Shaw and that’s his ability to connect and want his desire and belief in humanity, and to connect emotionally with humanity - meaning humanity your audience, humanity the performers. We're all one here. And Shaw really did believe in that, very handsomely, which is admirable.
I now had – I got this opportunity. I've got all these performances and I probably had, I think, four St. Mathew Passions that I transferred, so it was interesting, having known that performance, to hear the performances that he did. And none of them were at the level of what we had on that occasion at Blossom. At the same time, you could really tell that he wasn't so interested in the perfection of the performances again as he was feeling that it makes an emotional connection with the audience. You're singing words that may not be words that you believe in, but that Bach's music is so great that it can connect people in a way that we can't do with words.
And then again, you're talking about a man who could speak and write speeches and give addresses so eloquently. I mean he was a fantastic wordsmith in addition to being a fantastic musician and ultimately a fantastic conductor. So, to be able to hear these performances - it really is fascinating.
And they're not perfection in terms of performance, and that's good. It's good because he has the objective that he had, and that was great, and when we made commercial recordings, we wanted that perfection, as well. And therein lies, perhaps, one of the toughest elements between what I had to do and what he had to do.
I'm making commercial recordings which have to last for the length of time anybody will ever listen to them, and that can be for a tremendously long time, as we know. But if it got in the way of his ability to feel that he was making an emotional connection or that he couldn't be connecting with his performers because of the request for perfection - and perfection means you've got mistakes, you've got roughnesses, you have ensemble that is not together, you’ve got intonation which is an issue. That was my job. I had to ask for that. And it was a job that sometimes created for him interference, and that he didn't care for. I think he always did appreciate that. He knew. These are commercial recordings, and you are being judged on the performance you deliver. And if it does have technical issues, they're going to be called out. I mean that's what reviewers do when they review recordings. So it was always a bit of a fine line, but I knew what my job was. He clearly knew what his job was and what he wanted. And for the most part, we had a marvelous time working together.
Recording the Handel Messiah in 1983
RW: But there were, on occasion, a couple of those times when - especially if it was something where the chorus wasn't quite up - and this goes to specifically the Handel Messiah that we recorded in 1983. I think it was in 1983. Were you there?
SS: I was not in the Chamber Chorus. That would have been the Chamber Chorus.
RW: OK, that was the Chamber Chorus then. But, every year you get a different group of singers. You don't always have the same people performing. There’s mainstay people that I think probably were, but there's turnover. And that particular year, our tenors were a little bit weak and weak in the sense that the melismatic passages of some of Handel's up-tempo choruses are a real bear. Yat-dat-dat-dat, etc. I don't dare try to sing it now, because I can't sing anymore. In the day, I could pull off that stuff. But the tenors were having a tough time, and I would say, "We’re still not covered here."
And he would do a couple of takes, and they still weren't able to do it, and at that point there was only one thing for him to do and that was to get frustrated. Well, I'm getting frustrated too because I've got to fix it. I can't leave a bad passage where it's sloppy, where they can't pull it off. Then we end up making some adjustments. We put a few altos down to help them out and we get a couple of them to - if you know you're having trouble with this, don't sing as strongly as your other colleagues. And if you're really having a hard time, just don't do it.
And we managed, but he didn't take my comments as constructive criticism that was part of the process that we had to do. When it came to the point where it felt to him like I was criticizing the chorus, that was intolerable. The chorus was Shaw's baby. The chorus was Shaw's creation, and verily so, what he did with them and the work that he put into it. And to criticize the chorus was tantamount to about losing your head for someone in my position. And he ended up stomping out of those sessions three times, cursing me more colorfully that I've ever heard anybody else pull off in their life. I mean, it was quite impressive and I’m not one that – and he started - he actually was picking on my mother. It was like, “Your mother wears combat boots.” And I said, "My mother's been dead, Robert, for a long time so it doesn't really matter if she wears combat boots or not." So you see, I'm not smart enough to just shut up and let him get it out of his system. I was throwing a few things back when he got over the edge. So, we got it done, but it wasn't that much fun.
We didn't ever have one go down like that again. And all of the choruses thereafter were - it wasn't an issue. Things got better and better and better. And the orchestra playing got better and better and better. And when we're talking about being able to do the Berlioz Requiem to the level of perfection, we did that. And then we did a Verdi Requiem which caught the attention of - on a world-wide basis – I mean, Europe finally then discovered, 'Oh my god, this is an incredible performance by Shaw and the Atlanta people. This is as professional. This is better than anything we've done over here.” And when you get reviews like that, you know you've gotten somewhere. So, it was a fantastic experience is all I can say.
Orchestra and Chorus improve under Shaw, With Many Grammy awards
SS: I loved that every year that the Grammys came out, Telarc or the symphony or the chorus had a Grammy for something.
RW: Oh my goodness, we won a lot of Grammys down there. And they were fair Grammys. You know there was all this nonsense that we had bought membership votes. The Chicago Symphony actually did that. They paid for their entire chorus and orchestra in Chicago for their memberships - they covered the cost of it. Nobody - we didn't do that in Atlanta. No way. And the chapter just got started down there, and it was pretty small. The truth of the matter was that a big fan club erupted and existed on behalf of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, and very deservedly so, and for the work that, I would like to think, that Telarc did on that which we all worked beautifully together and got to the pinnacle of our abilities at the same time, which was a heck of a thing to pull off.
SS: Well and just talking to you today and knowing about your reputation when you were in Atlanta and your ability to be able to communicate with Shaw was a huge part of all of that because the personalities - I had heard horror stories of his earlier recordings before he found you guys. And you seemed to be able to manage him. Well, you couldn't manage him but you could at least have him tolerate the situation better than most.
RW: Well he, he did, you know - we established the relationship of trust. And he knew me as a musician from Blossom, and I don't think he ever forgot that. But, you know, that's not - you don't make your way through life on an event and think that that’s gonna, you know, make everything hunky-dory just because you did something nice for someone. It doesn't work that way. Every one of these performances that we did together was individually very important and very important to him. And I do have to say that knowing how hard that man worked on scores and studying them and, without the pianistic abilities that so many other conductors often have - but not necessarily all - but he just, I mean he let me sit in once on him rehearsing at home or studying a score, and how he dissected it. And he is sitting there, one finger at a time playing the viola part, and it's just amazing how he wanted to know every note in that score, what it meant, understood the part, understood its importance, and then stand back, back out, and then you start looking at other factors of how you're going to create a line, how you have one note move to another note, to another note. Very much the chamber music style that Szell established for a large ensemble which he brought in, and he, I would say, having gotten to see him early on down there and share all that with him together and then see right up to a couple of months before he passes. And see what an incredible career he had.
And he was giving Beethoven 9th performances. He gave one at - how his heart managed to let him even give one when he was in Boston at the very end of his life, and how phenomenal those performances were. And he would work - if he maybe did it the week before, he wouldn't have to work the way that he did, but if he let it sit for just a little bit, he's right back in studio working on it again and again and again to get his sense that he really is inside the piece and knows what he wants and what he’s doing.
Verdi Requiem recording
SS: You mentioned the Verdi Requiem and I don't know how many times we sang it before that particularly notable recording – twice? This was the third time? And it was - there was a sudden leap on the bar there when we did that recording and that, to me, that was when everything came together – as just as a personal experience - because everything that you guys did and all of the decisions - he had made some new decisions about how - apparently how the soloists, he wanted to hear from the soloists, and it was quite remarkable.
RW: This is what - it's been so fun for me to be able to do all of this archival work because I know those two performances. And I make comments on the performances, and I make them in perspective to something like the commercial recording that we did. And it's fascinating to see. I mean, certainly there were elements along the way. But I mean there were chunks that were really fantastic, and there were some chunks that weren't quite together yet. And then you hear, when we get to the performances that are coincidental with the recording session, those were always really good, I must say. There was special effort put forth.
And it was just an amazing thing to be able to have this experience. I feel quite blessed that after it all happened and it was all said and done, then here I’m working on this. And you want to talk about something bringing back memories, oh my goodness! And it's funny how some of the recordings I don't remember as well as others, but certainly there were so many good ones, and it was a joy.
The Verdi Requiem - we knew when that was going down. I remember when he comes back to listen, he's got a big smile on his face. That wasn't often but it got to be more often.
And then we move along, and then we get into some small little projects which were just like a Christmas album with just the Chamber Chorus and one other area where - and God bless Caroline, who knew that this was a little bit of a problem - Robert would choose a soloist sometimes more for who they were as a human being than they were for how good of a singer they were.
And on occasion, that didn't work out all that well. And in the beginning we didn't involve ourselves in that process as directly as I would have liked to, which most record labels would have, but then, very shortly thereafter, we did because we ended up letting soloists go who had been hired for the concerts which were not professional enough to do a commercial recording. No reason to name names, but it happened around Carmina Burana; and it happened around a few other interesting pieces.
SS: Yes, the rumors among the chorus members were rampant. We never knew what was happening. So what did Caroline have to do? Did she -
RW: Caroline told me - and God bless him, he called me Bobby. I mean I was called Bobby when I was a kid by my family. I never minded it at all. Nobody calls me that now. It's Bob. But Caroline would call me Bobby, too. And she said, "Bobby, don't you ever give up on that issue of the soloists. It's been a problem for a long time. He needs to get it fixed, and he needs to listen to you and discuss it with you in advance so that we don't end up in those kinds of situations. He'll do it, but just don't be shy."
Now, that sounds like she's doing a dirty behind his back. No she's not. And I sometimes wonder if he might of even had a conversation with her to reinforce something like that. I'll never know. But she was great. I mean, she wanted him to be seen in the best light that he could be seen. She understood all that and God bless her. You want to talk about a woman supporting her husband, nobody did it any more wonderfully than she did. And she was so nice about it, so generous about it, so pleasant about it. Even some funny things that happened at the festivals in France. That's a story that maybe I'll tell again at some time but I'll skip that.
Recording in France
SS: I've heard some very interesting reports about how they recorded in France, sometimes in a circle, holding hands or something like that or maybe not holding hands.
RW: I don't remember the holding hands part, but no, we did the wonderful Rachmaninoff Vespers in a circle, and with, I think, mixed voices. I think it was - it wasn't by section though but SATB all the way around. And it’s just magnificent. I mean that performance is - it’s almost medicinal. If you're not feeling good, you can sit down and listen to that, and I swear that if you don't feel better after you've heard it, I'd be surprised. And it certainly reaches into the depths of your inner being. I got more letters at Telarc from people within the industry - other record labels - PolyGram to name a couple of small ones, and people at SONY and RCA and on and on and on, saying, ” that recording is just phenomenal.”
And we actually had severe technical problems with that recording because it was in the summer time, and we were experiencing hundred degree temperatures several days in a row over there in Le Lot, France. And the equipment was not receiving - our power was unstable. We're in this little tiny town and this old church which is kind of run down a little bit but had an acoustic which we could make work after we stuffed blankets all over the place. But with the digital process - it didn't - the converters didn't have a good time with low voltage. It was not adequate enough, and we had to get two professional digital experts to build us some software that actually cleaned up a little bit of distortion that was left as a result of the voltage issue, and it worked magnificently.
SS: After the fact?
RW: After the fact, and it was a miracle that that happened. It wasn't inexpensive, I might add, but it was worth every penny of it. But that's such an incredible performance. But here, you want a story of how Robert - you're going to have to dissect this into shorter sections, I'm sure.
We're going to record that, and so we're headed over to France. We have actually -Michael Murray who was an organist that we worked with is going to record on the Cavaillé-Coll organ down in Toulouse, France. And so we're going over there first and do those Franck works and then head up to Le Lot and do the Vespers. I'm at the airline club at JFK in New York, and we're getting ready to board to fly over, and I get a page that says, "If Robert Woods is in the club lounge, would you please contact the front desk." And I do, and they say, “We have a phone call for you from a Robert Shaw,” and I’m going, “Oh-oh.” And she said, “You can take it in that room in there.” And so, I get on the horn with him. He said - you might have to cut this out – “This is Robert.” You all know him. He said, "God damn it Bobby." He said, "This is shit. Don’t - I don't want you to come here.” He said, “I don’t want you - don't get on that plane. Don't you guys come over here. Don't ship all that gear because we - this just isn't happening. It's not going to work. I'm so sorry, I don't know what to tell you." And I said, “Well Robert, we're recording other stuff down in Toulouse, and all the gear is going to have to be there for that, so we're still going.” And I said to him, I said, “You know, is this the first time you've ever had something just not come together the way you wanted it to?”
And he sort of chuckled a little bit. He said, and he was still on his "Isn't gonna happen, it's just no good," and the expletives were flying all over the place.
SS: Was he talking about the voices too?
RW: He didn't specifically talk about the voices. He said, “We're just not getting the piece.” And the voices, I mean the basses - all of this stuff. We had a lot of low basses in for that particular event. Anyway, so we finally are headed up there. We didn't have many more conversations, so I said I'll see you in France, I hope, and if you get to the point you really just don't want us to come up there, let me know.
And so, we get there, and you're rehearsing at the church in Souillac which is a 14th century church that still had dirt floors except where the marble altar was. It’s rather remarkable. But all the way around the altar, there was marble, but the rest of the church near where the congregation sat, whatever they would call them - it doesn't sound like the right word - was the original dirt from 1400s.
And he says, "Come here, Bobby," and Elaine was with me, too. And he said, "Come here, stand here." And he's got them in a circle all the way around the altar, at a pretty good distance. “This is where we're recording.” And it's a wonderful acoustic but unfortunately it's got two highways that go by it - no way in the world - not quiet enough. But he has us stand there, and he starts the piece off, and I couldn't breathe.
SS: Oh, my.
RW: I can hardly tell the story. It was just unbelievable - the magnificence of the sound that of that ensemble in the context of having had that conversation with him at the airport at JFK. That's a long uphill course, but they got there. Remarkable. I mean it was just breathtaking. And I wish we could have recorded there because it was - it sounded just so gorgeous in that location but, again, it wouldn't work.
So, you just never knew. He was thoughtful. He didn't want to do anything that would make us lose money or not get a good product. He really cared, and I would love to have seen the process that - what happened? What happened between that phone call and when we walk in that church, and it's to that level of perfection? Well I wasn't at that end of the stick. We weren't around. We were doing our thing down in Toulouse. But I never have really talked to the chorus members that much that were there. I take it you didn't go.
SS: No, but we can interview someone...
RW: You can. Craig Jessop would be the one I hope you would interview sometime 'cause Craig really understood all of it. And he just - I have to say, I have a very blessed 25th anniversary coming up with Elaine this year. We are going back to the Chateau de la Treyne for our 25th anniversary at the end of September and that was this magical place. I mean it’s a castle that they started building in 1492 that hangs off a rock cliff over the Dordogne River at its source area. And those experiences over there were to die for. The people that were there can never forget it. It was quite remarkable all the way around.
And there is an abundance of wonderful stories about Shaw there, his home, and a man who told me that he never listened to his recordings - and actually John Coolidge always listened to the masters that we edited. What I came up with was the finished performance, and Robert didn't listen to them then. He listened to them later, especially if he liked the music, but John did all of the listening that Robert didn't want to be a part of that process. John was great. He was not overly picky, and he certainly didn't hesitate to say something if he thought we needed to fix a little something.
SS: There are three persistent people involved here and I think that's a good word to use. You did not let Shaw go to the dark side, or if he did, you persisted in trying to lift him up, and we knew about his persistence and John Coolidge...
Conclusion - Shaw's connection with the World
RW: Concluding remarks are real easy for me now, in a sense, that I feel more connected with Robert - as connected or more connected with Robert Shaw today than I ever did in any other time in my life. And that's probably after coming off of a few years of doing all this preservation work and hearing all the work that he did in Atlanta during that period of time. And the fascinating ability to listen to how that orchestra and chorus grew year after year after year, from a really fine regional orchestra to a world-class orchestra and chorus.
That man was amazing, and he speaks to us all still, very clearly, in so many different ways, and I’m so grateful for all these recordings that we can experience his work over and over again, and that people who’ve never heard of him before will, at some point in time, trip over his work and be inspired yet again.
The lesson I learned and what I learned that I from him that I think was invaluable is what I believed in, in life. And he loved to make cracks about humanists and find some good jokes about humanism, which there were several. And I never quite think I got him back in the day, but I certainly get him now. And I get him more from listening to his concert performances probably than the commercial recordings because it’s a different scenario - different live, more honest view of things.
Not that there is anything dishonest about the performances that we managed to produce on recording, but yes, there's some editing that goes on there. You know what, it wasn't extreme. When it worked well, it just worked. That Rachmaninoff recording we talked about, the Vespers, there was not a whole lot of editing that had to be done on that.
But anyway, I respect and I live a life of respecting humanity as he sort of taught all the way along. He did it with music as his tool. He did it as when he could deliver his sermons, by way of being great speeches, how much he cared about what was going on in our world, how much he spoke to that, how much he stood behind and how, I think of - here it is 2017. Robert Shaw would not be sitting back on his hands right now about what he would have to say about what's going on in the world. He would be very active in that. He was consistent about that in his life, and for all the things that were colorful and sometimes not the best thing for him or some of the people around him in his life, you got to forget about that. You've got to look at what the man gave us, and many, many gifts in many, many different guises for which I am eternally grateful.
And I am grateful to be talking to people that probably care something about Robert Shaw or you wouldn't be going to that site. And I'm grateful to Suzanne and for Kiki Wilson for our film, for all that they've done and will continue to do.