Interview with Sue Williams, choral musician and original member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra choruses, voice teacher, lecturer, writer, lifetime supporter and board member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. By Suzanne Shull, project manager of this website. February 21, 2017.
SS: I’m speaking today with Sue Williams who has been a long time supporter of the Atlanta Symphony and was fortunate to sing with Shaw when he first came to town. I believe it was in 1967-68 concert year. Sue, I’m just curious to know how it felt to get Robert Shaw as a conductor after having a lifetime of high school chorus and university choruses and church. What was it like with Shaw?
SW: It’s a wonderful thing to think about because my husband and I were primed to receive Robert Shaw because we had had a music teacher in Charlotte, North Carolina who was a devotee of Shaw’s music, used his and Alice Parker’s arrangements as songs that we sang.
And I had studied piano, sung in church choirs, as you said, and really was eager for music. And I especially was eager then because I had been without a lot of it as I was raising two little children. First Mr. Shaw came as a guest conductor to conduct the Mozart Requiem, and it was just like having gone to paradise to go to those rehearsals and to give 150% of your abilities and dedication to try to come up to his standard and his inspiration.
SS: Was that with the first Chamber Chorus that he started?
SW: No it was a larger chorus than that. There were auditions; and probably there were over 100 people singing that Mozart Requiem. And then when he came in 1967, there were more auditions. And it prompted me to start studying voice privately and become better at it when he announced several years into that that he was going to have a smaller chorus to sing the Brahms Requiem. And I certainly wanted to sing the Brahms Requiem, and so I studied voice and prepared. Then lo and behold he changed his mind and decided to use the whole chorus for the Brahms, and that was great. And then he did later start the Chamber Chorus, and I was a member of that.
SS: So, I know in 67, 68, 69, he used the Atlanta Choral Guild for a lot of the larger concerts and even for a concert in Florida with the London Symphony Orchestra. Were you a part of that?
SW: Yes, yes, my husband and I both went to Daytona. First it was Beethoven’s 9th and a Bach Cantata, and then the second time it was the Missa Solemnis.
SS: And I believe he started the actual Symphony Chorus in 1970 when he brought Don Neuen into town to help him out as an assistant. You actually got in that small chorus, didn’t you?
SW: Yes I did. He was even more precise and more disciplined about exactly where people sat in relation to other singers in that small chorus. And sometimes he would sit not as sections but as quartets within - and practiced in all sorts of different ways to let you hear what was around you and relate to what was around you. And he also had that great facility for giving everybody numbers depending on what he thought was the range and quality and texture of their voice so that if the tenor line needed more attention, then the lower altos could sing with them, or if the altos needed more support, the second sopranos could sing with them. That sort of adjustment he made easily.
SS: Let’s talk a little bit about the spiritual aspect of singing with Robert Shaw that people really can’t define. But you’ve been able to define things through your life, and I hope that you have some words that maybe can clue us all in as to how you felt about it and what he brought that was just different and stayed with us, I guess you could say.
SW: It really does stay with us. When you were starved for spiritual growth, you could find it in the music, if you were a musician. And he certainly hoped for transcendence through sound. And he realized that accuracy and attention would lead then to blessing and beauty, and there would be the transcendence that would come if you were thoroughly prepared and thoroughly attentive.
I know that he said once, “You have to love the fundamentals and the mystery.”
SS: Wow. That’s quotable!
SW: Yes, so much of what he said, of course, was quotable. But the fundamentals had to be mastered, for sure, and then perhaps the mystery could come out.
SS: And that’s how he did his rehearsals. He didn’t talk about the mystery or anything like that at the beginning. You just did 1 & 2 & 3(T) & 4 &.
SW: He started with the absolute clarity of vowel tone, and rhythmic impact, and pitch, and cohesion of sound - that your voice was not standing out from anybody else’s. It was all one unified sound. So those were the fundamentals, and he worked from there.
SS: It seems a bit like the mystery came out in his insights about what he felt that the composer wanted. Could you speak to that?
SW: Yes, I think that he as much as humanly possible became one with the composer’s intent because he studied the scores so absolutely with the greatest integrity and discipline. And then he inspired the performers to get into that mindset and to try to deliver what he had found that the composer wanted. And I think that’s how he got to that absolute delivery of the style and the message and the inspiration of the composers.
SS: Well, You were talking earlier about some of the things he said that were so quotable. And I think that one of the things that was memorable about the way he communicated with the choir was that he used metaphors and similes a lot. And it seemed like Atlanta Symphony musicians were always jealous of the fact that he never talked to them the way he talked to the chorus, that they felt like they missed something of his personality or whatever that was.
SW: Maybe he didn’t talk to them about the “dove descending”. But he would talk to the chorus about just maybe the dove would descend so the spirit would be there. There was something too about - I’m sure he felt that the human voice has the most chance to give all the possibilities of perfection and fallibility that were different from having an instrument outside your body.
SS: I guess if you look at his upbringing, his mother’s voice was such an influence on him - and his sister’s. And he never really knew how to play an instrument.
SW: Well he, you know, he always fought the problem of whether he was just a choral conductor, whether the other musicians and critics thought of him as just a choral conductor, or did he become truly an orchestral conductor?
I wanted to talk a little bit about how he inspired members of the chorus and I’m sure the orchestra, too, to continue the impact that he had on them.
And they did this - we could do this through teaching and writing about music and continuing to make music. So it was a great incentive to me to teach singing to other people and to teach perceptive listening to groups of people, because he showed us what attention would lead to. And he showed us how you could trust the relationships that were always inherent in the music. If there was dissonance, you could trust that, and it would lead to harmony in some way that you had not expected. It would carry you further than what you had expected.
And there was always energy. There was always movement. And just like life is change and movement, the music was change and movement, but never in isolation, always in relationship. So those relationships were inspiring not only for the music but for life in general.
SS: That’s a pretty good ending - actually. Unless ….
SW: Well I guess the other thing I had thought about getting to was the impact not just on individuals but on this city, on Atlanta as a whole. That he developed a sense of pride in the business community and in the professional community that the Atlanta Symphony orchestra was the finest and best music organization in the southeast, and that it could travel to Europe and to New York and be accepted in the world’s elite music making organizations. And so there was a great civic pride in that.
He also taught us how to accept diversity, to accept the value in all peoples and to work together. And that was very important for the city of Atlanta, and I think it was very important to him. I think it was one of the reasons he wanted to come to Atlanta. He wanted to make a difference in racial rest and acceptance.
SS: Well he did that right away by having the Morehouse Glee Club on stage at Christmas. On the website we have a program that shows how he put together that first concept of the Christmas Festival music with the young choir and the Morehouse Glee Club. And he often had African American soloists which I think set a precedent for Atlanta at the time.
SW: Absolutely, and there’s that famous story that unless Seth McCoy could be on the stage and in the restaurant, Seth being the very fine tenor who was black, that there would be nobody on the stage or in the restaurant.
SS: Carrying forward the expectations that they had when he had the Chorale on the road, that if they wouldn’t let the African Americans into the restaurant, they would just all sit outside and eat.
SW: They would all have a sandwich in the bus.
SS: Well Sue, this has been wonderful. If you have anything else to add, this would be a good time to do it.
SW: I didn’t mention in his impact about his eloquence of language that still feeds people. Thank goodness a lot of his words have been saved and they can still inspire people (click to read his own words.)