Stories from Contributors who had encounters with Shaw

I am a 68-year-old Cleveland-based orchestral and choral conductor who 'self-identifies' as a Shaw protege.  My real career started with a one-hour interview in 1965 in Severance Hall.  As a result of that interview, I was invited to join the conducting class at the Meadow Brook School during the summers of 1966 and 67 (the only high school student, btw), and I sang in the Orchestra Chorus during the 66/67 season--his last in Cleveland.

During this relatively short time, I sang the B-minor (twice), the War Requiem, the St. John Passion, Belshazzar's Feast, the Chichester Psalms, the Spring Symphony (Britten), the Missa Solemnis and 9th Symphony, the Mozart C-minor Mass, the Haydn Lord Nelson Mass, and Stravinsky Symphony of Psalms and Oedipus Rex--all with Shaw and either the Cleveland or Detroit Symphonies or the Meadow Brook Festival Orchestra.

Only a true "Shavian" can understand what effect that kind of glorious force-feeding had on a young conductor.   Martin Kessler, Music Director/Suburban Symphony Orchestra and Choral Arts Cleveland

 I was playing timpani during the Alaskan Music Festival in Anchorage Alaska when Robert Shaw was conducting--back in 1959-62. At one point in the piece I played a triangle beat. Shaw stopped the orchestra and asked, "Why don't all triangles sound like that?" I had apparently hit the triangle at just the right point; it was hanging on a catgut string so sound was not muffled. It was one of those ethereal moments musicians like to achieve, and apparently I did for Robert Shaw.

I was also quite taken by his work and it was very influencing on my future activities. He stopped the cellos at one point and said, "If your not getting it, it's probably something I'm not doing. What can I do to help you." He said this several times to me, to others, and the orchestra during our week together. He was a true teacher. Since, I always ask, "What can we do differently to make this work?"  Paul Jackson

A Story and Life Lesson:  I had recently received my Master's Degree in Vocal Performance, and in a few years gained a considerable amount of experience as a choral conductor, with symphonic and community choirs. Most of my duties, however, were dedicated to a large church choir setting. Several years later I attended Florida State University and earned a Ph.D. in Choral Music Education and Conducting.

However, it was during the interluding years between degrees that I became very frustrated and felt as if I was perhaps burning out, convinced that all of my excellent work was not being appreciated to my liking. 

To renew my spirits I applied and was accepted as a member of the choir during the mid-1980's at the Robert Shaw Summer Workshop held on the campus of Westminster Choir College.  The rehearsals prepared us for major choral works to be performed at the Mostly Mozart Festival, held at the Lincoln Center in New York City or were presented at Alexander Hall on the campus of Princeton University.

It was during a break at one of our rehearsals at Westminster that Mr. Shaw and I ended up sharing the same small space to rest before continuing the rehearsal. It was not without fear of ejection that I asked him the following question before I planned a quick departure: “Mr. Shaw, how can I prevent from burning out in this profession? I am giving all that I can to be a success back home.” I will never forget his manner and wise insight that spoke to the heart of the matter. He placed his hand on my shoulder, like a father would to a son and said, “You see that person over there, he may become well known and more famous than this excellent musician over across the room. There are no guarantees, son. Your job is to clean up your own backyard and you may never be recognized for it."  David L. Covington, Ph.D.

My first experience singing with Robert Shaw was in 1965-1966, when I was 16 years old, attending West Technical High School, and singing in the All City High School Chorus (which included students selected from high schools all over the Cleveland and Greater Cleveland areas).  The rehearsals were held during the fall and winter months on Wednesday nights at the Board of Education Building in Downtown Cleveland, and we did three performances of Leonard Bernstein's "Chichester Psalms" at Severance Hall with the Cleveland Orchestra, with Robert Shaw conducting.  The rehearsals were so exciting - learning this strange, new music, and singing it in Hebrew!  I remember having to take two buses to get to the Sunday afternoon rehearsals, which were held at Plymouth Church (I think?) in Shaker Heights.  It was such a thrilling experience, I compare the feeling to that of falling in love for the first time - sheer, utter excitement and anticipation!  The experience was one of my most unforgettable lifetime events.

In later years, I joined the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus under Robert Page's direction.  Then Gareth Morrell became Director in 1989, and in 1995, the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus joined forces with the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, the Cincinnati Orchestra Chorus, the Oberlin Choir, and the American Boys Choir singing Mahler's Eighth Symphony (the "Symphony of a Thousand") under the direction of Robert Shaw at Carnegie Hall.  The choruses took up two levels in the boxes of the Hall; the Boys Choir was on stage, the smaller brass ensemble was situated in the center of one of the box levels, facing directly across from the stage, the orchestra was in the pit, and the mezzo-soprano soloist was standing way up in one of the upper balcony tiers.  It was an amazing "surround sound" for the audience.  Another "WOW!!!" experience!   Elizabeth Gockel

I remember one of his graphic, descriptive instructions re: the chorus singing a passage:  "Sing this passage as though you are tip toeing on the inside of an egg shell."  It worked.....a beautiful, gentle ppp.  Also, I remember his blue long sleeved shirt that he always wore for rehearsals.  Wonder if he had a closet full.   Bill Lucht

My story by Kurt Sauer, current conductor of the Medina Ohio Chorus

My associations with Robert Shaw began in Cleveland, in the 1960's.  In 1960, Robert Shaw had become music minister at First Unitarian Church of Cleveland.  My parents took us to at least one service there.  I was impressed by the kind of service it was.   It was quite different from the Evangelical and Reformed service format that I had known to that point.  There was no sermon. Shaw's service was music based complete with Baroque Pipe Organ, string quartet, harpsichord and professional singers.  The works presented were not the familiar hymns and anthems I had known, but works by Bach and Handel.

John Dietz was a baritone with the Robert Shaw Chorale.  I mention his name here because there may be other Clevelanders who knew him.  John Dietz was also my first piano teacher.  I believe it was 1962, when our piano lessons were put on hiatus while the Robert Shaw Chorale made the momentous good will tour to the former Soviet Union.

In late 1965, the Cleveland All-City High School Chorus was in final rehearsals at the Board of Education Auditorium, preparing for our Christmas concert.  I remember observing a handsome gentleman in a camel hair overcoat with a woman sitting by his side, behind us, listening to us rehearse.  In the next rehearsal our director, Esther M. Keller, explained that we had been invited to sing Leonard Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, in a series of performances in March, 1966, with members of the Cleveland Orchestra, on stage at Severance Hall.  The mystery guest who had been auditioning us was Robert Shaw with his secretary, Edna Burrus.  My memory is that the rehearsals were held in the Chorus Rehearsal Room at Severance Hall, a room that has long since been given over to offices, probably after Shaw left Cleveland.  At the time I was a 16 year old student at James Ford Rhodes High School, and our group of participants took CTS buses to Severance Hall for rehearsals.  

Aside from the difficulty learning Hebrew text, Shaw had us marching in place, then marching around the room to assure that we were feeling the rhythm in the first movement.  He began rehearsals with the ensemble giving each other back rubs and chop-chopping the back to increase blood circulation and to help us release tension.  At one point during rehearsals, he pulled a tuning fork out of his briefcase and causing it to vibrate, put it to his temple, and angrily admonishing some section that they were 14 vibrations flat.  I was stunned by the flash of anger, and didn't really understand whether this behavior was for show, or it was genuine.  We were in high school, after all, and quite possibly had never considered being 14 vibrations flat.  

In the summer of 1967, I spent six weeks studying voice, vocal repertoire and singing in the Youth Chorus on scholarship at the Meadow Brook School of Music at the Meadow Brook Festival, at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan.  The Festival was the summer home of the Detroit Symphony, and Robert Shaw was the Music Director of the Orchestral and Choral Institutes.  Clayton Krehbiel was Shaw's assistant conductor.  The repertoire included Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass, Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, J.S. Bach's Passion According to St. John, and the season concluded with Beethoven's Finale:  Sypmphony No. 9 "Choral."  I worked up my nerve to ask Mr. Shaw if I could take his picture just outside the rehearsal hall.  He was running a little late and it took some nerve on my part, but he did agree, and I have that slide with him dressed in his blue rehearsal shirt.  Eddie Burrus was always driving him around campus in a big blue slab-sided Lincoln Continental.

This was the year Shaw had left Cleveland for Atlanta, and it was his third season at Meadow Brook.  He assembled noted teachers and artists such as Krehbiel, John Wustman, James Levine, Jerome Rosen, and Lynn Harrell.  In addition, many of the concert artists had visited the school in connection with their appearances at the music festival.  In our vocal repertoire class with John Wustman, one of our classmates was Maria Ewing, who we heard perform Saint-Saens Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix.  So impressed by her performance, Wustman arranged for her to sing it again, this time for Shaw's friend, Chorale member, and concert soloist, Florence Kopleff.  Later on Ewing became an internationally known opera singer.

A group of us listened to adults auditioning for the Beethoven solos through the closure seams in the door.  Sophie L. Ginn was awarded the soprano solo.  We were amazed at how difficult the soprano solo was written, so high and on a decrescendo just before the rousing end.  Sophie Ginn-Paster began teaching voice at Baldwin-Wallace College, in Cleveland, the following year.

One of the students in our dorm had a 1948 non-commercial recording of Robert Shaw reading Winnie the Pooh to his children, and we listened to it with great interest.

In 1968, Robert Shaw conducted Requiem Mass by Berlioz at Blossom Music Center, and I had auditioned for the Chorus and sang with them in this and subsequent years while I was a student at Heidelberg College.  Requiem is an impressive choral/orchestral work involving massive percussion sections, as well as off-stage brass choirs, created by Hector Berlioz, and author of Treatise on Orchestration.  This was the type of programming for which Robert Shaw was particularly noted, above all other conductors.  Members of the ensemble spoke of him in spiritual and sacred terms and the experience of having him on the podium was our religion.

Shaw conducted the Blossom Festival Chorus in Symphony of Psalms by Stravinsky and Chichester Psalms in August, 1969.  

The final works that I recall singing under Robert Shaw's direction are Boito's Prologue to Mephistopheles and Poulenc's Gloria in August, 1972.  Mr. Shaw remarked in a rehearsal that the Prologue was "the greatest piece of musical theater in all the literature."  Again, this was sung with the Blossom Festival Chorus and Cleveland Orchestra.  Kurt Sauer

Medina Chorus recording of a Shaw/Parker arrangement of We Wish You a Merry Christmas:             

Medina Chorus recording of the Shaw/Parker arrangement of Angels We Have Heard on High: 

I arrived in Cleveland in 1960, having been involved with choral singing in college and in the military.  Upon hearing about the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and Robert Shaw, I immediately applied for an audition, and to my great joy, was accepted as a 2nd Tenor!  I was already a fan of his because of the popularity of the Robert Shaw Chorale, and the many Robert Shaw choral arrangements that were familiar to amateur choruses at the time.  I spent five seasons singing under his leadership.  During that time, the COC made its first (ever) appearance on tour (sans the Cleveland Orchestra) with trip to the Casals Festival in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and its first (ever) recording with the Cleveland Orchestra of a Christmas LP.  Reluctantly, I had to leave the COC at that point to help at home with the care of my growing family.

When, however, Mr Shaw announced in 1966 that he was going to Atlanta, I rejoined the Chorus for his final concert (Beethoven 9th, of course !) at Blossom Music Center, the summer home of the Orchestra.  I was able to rejoin the Chorus (full time) again in 1973 under Robert Page, and remained a member until 2011, a total of 44 years participation.  I was also a member of the combined Shaw Choruses, this time as a Baritone, which performed Mahler's 8th at Carnegie Hall in 1995.    Robert Scarr

I sang in the first year of the Akron Symphony Chorus. That would be 1955 or 56. I was a student at Kent State. We prepared the Brahms Requiem, in English. A very young RS was the guest conductor for our very first performance.
I was a music teacher in Parma, Ohio and he did a workshop with the Parma High choir. I learned much from that experience.
When I later joined the Cleveland Orchestra Chorus, the greatest experience of my choral life was singing the Mahler 8 symphony at Carnegie Hall on May 4, 1995 under the direction of the beloved Robert Shaw. How fortunate I have been.  Gloria Wharton

I sang with Maestro Shaw twice, once when he came to Columbus in 1984 or so to do Mendelssohn's 'Elijah' and once in Cleveland in 1994 when he conducted the Verdi 'Requiem' for a benefit concert for an anti-nuclear organization, Performers and Artists for Nuclear Disarmament (PAND). Working with him on both of these works were the high points of my musical life.   Chester F. Wiley, Jr.

I had the great pleasure of singing with him in the COC from September of 1961, when I was 18, until he left for Atlanta.  My fondest memory was of auditioning for and making the Chamber Chorus for the Bach B Minor Mass, in 1966, I believe.  I was also able to travel down to Atlanta, with Maurice Casey and the Ohio State University choir in 1978 to perform the Mahler Symphony #8 with Mr. Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Mr. Shaw had a profound influence on my life; since I started with him in my Sophomore year of college, I was moved to change my major to Music Education, and became a High School choral director for forty years.    Dallas M. Young, Jr.