Interview with Dr. T. J. Anderson and Bradley Currey regarding their experience with Robert Shaw, conducted by Suzanne Shull on March 1, 2017 in Atlanta GA.
SS: I’m here with Dr. T. J. Anderson and Mr. Brad Currey who have had significant roles in the life of Robert Shaw and have a lot of fond memories and special stories. Before they start, I would like for them to introduce themselves, so let's start with Mr. Curry, and tell us your involvement with the Atlanta Symphony and just a short bio about you and Mr. Shaw.
BC: Well, my involvement with the Atlanta Symphony began when I was recruited by Betty Fuller to come on the Board and ultimately to succeed her as the Chairman of the Board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I was born and raised in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My mother sent me to a piano teacher, but having ten thumbs, I never learned how to play the piano. But later on, I did sing in glee clubs and choirs and choruses, including for Dr. Hugh Hodgson, the organist and choirmaster at St. Luke's Episcopal Church, so I had some knowledge and experience of choral music, but not much.
And when I got on the Board of the Atlanta Symphony, I became very much involved with Robert and his music and his work, and it's a friendship that I’ll prize till my dying day.
SS: Well, I’m sure we'll hear why you feel that way, Dr. Anderson.
TJA: I think Brad Currey is extremely modest. I think it's safe to say that he saved Robert Shaw towards the end of his career because he was the go-between between Robert Shaw and the Board which was a very cantankerous period. I mean, he's a miracle worker, so I think that should be noted. I was Robert Shaw's composer-in-residence from 1969 to 1972, and during that period, I learned a lot from him. And I also had the chance to review contemporary scores to present to him in terms of options of performances. But the most important thing is we premiered the opera Treemonisha by Scott Joplin which is certainly one of the masterpieces in American music.
SS: That was the only time that it had been done since when Scott Joplin had done it like a piano concert.
TJA: Well, Joplin had published the piano version, and he did it in 1909, and he tried to get something going in terms of backers in New York, which weren't successful. He was not successful. And in 1911 he copyrighted it, and he published at his own expense about 500 copies, and that saved the opera because it's out of that 500 copies a number of us found it. I was lucky that I was introduced to it by the composer Bill Bachman at the University of Michigan, and he and I – he did most of the editing, but I looked over his shoulder, so to speak. And I did the orchestration for the premiere of that work.
SS: Well, that was a big job.
TJA: Well, it wasn't a big job. It was a pleasant job. And fortunately, when I came, I told Robert I was working on it and he was really excited, and of course his interest in American music was just unbound. We were able to present the premier in '72 with a stellar cast, rave reviews, everything like that. And it was a very important moment in the history of American music.
SS: Well as a pretty-much ‘native Atlantan,’ I got to hear that premiere. I was so excited that Atlanta was doing this.
TJA: Oh, you were there!
SS: I always felt that we were the social mecca of the world.
TJA: Well, you were at that time, without question, because that work turned out to be the first indigenous opera ever written in America. There’s a new book by Edward Berlin. It's called King of Ragtime, and it's the 2nd edition. And in that book he talks about Joplin setting out to write an American opera with American music, American story and things like that. And of course, Porgy and Bess doesn't come about until 20 years later. So it was monumental, really, in terms of the annals.
It's also interesting to note that it's the most performed work of all of the American operas. We've had operas written before that date in America, but basically, all of those operas were imitative of European operas.
SS: Since we've mentioned 1972, I remember that as being the year that Shaw was first asked to exit his job, in a manner of speaking. Were you involved with the effort to keep him here?
BC: I was not involved in the effort in’72, but was involved in later efforts. I wasn't part of the effort to ask Robert to leave, believe me that, but I knew about the ’72 event, and that got stopped because of a letter writing campaign. And the bottom line was that the Symphony Board, or the people on the Symphony Board, that wanted to run Robert off, saw very clearly that if they did so, the Symphony was absolutely dead in the water. They'd never get anybody any good to replace him because it would show what utter cowards these people were. They ended up having better sense than to try to run him off, so they renewed his contract.
SS: Well, at that point in time, the Symphony Chorus was about a year and a half old - it had started in 1970. Well, maybe it was two years old. And I know that a lot of Symphony Chorus people helped in that effort to get, I think, $25 down on a subscription for the next year. They stood out on the street corners. This is actually covered in the film pretty well, I think. But I can't talk enough about it because, having been in the chorus since Shaw came to town, I was just bereft - that's the only word - that he might leave already, because we were all so much thrilled with the job he was doing and what we were getting from that.
So over the years you got to know him pretty well, I guess, because people associate you (this is Brad Curry, by the way, that's talking right now), associate you with the effort to help Shaw get over small hurdles or large hurdles which could be...
BC: Well, they were big hurdles. I'm not sure what all was behind the '72 effort not to renew his contract. That's when these things came up, when Robert’s contract was up for renewal. But I know that he and his first wife were estranged at about that time; they had three children by that marriage. I don't know where she was living at that point or what happened, but in between that time and when I came to know Robert, they had been divorced, he had married Caroline Sauls Hitz ,who had a son by her first marriage. And then, she and Robert had a son, Thomas Shaw, whom you know about. At any rate, Caroline had gotten Robert off the bottle. He had been drinking a lot and frankly womanizing a lot, but she put him on the straight and narrow, and everything was calm and cool with that marriage. She was crazy about him, and he was crazy about her. They couldn't have been a more wonderful couple, quite by contrast with his first marriage.
So when I got to know all about this problem, the matter came before the Board and the then-chairman of the Board recommended to the Executive Committee composed of about 10 people that Robert's contract not be renewed. There were a number of problems that the then-chairman of the Board and chairman of the Executive Committee brought up, among them that Robert had come to a Woodruff Arts Center Board meeting and had invited the WSB television cameras to come and record his comments. In his report to the Woodruff Arts Center Board, Robert laid out the problems with the arts that he saw in Atlanta. Let it be said that the Woodruff Arts Center Board was composed of the business and professional leadership of Atlanta. I don't remember how many people were on that board, but it had to have been 25 or 30 or 35 people.
Robert stood up and explained to those ladies and gentlemen - mostly gentlemen - how ignorant they were of the arts, how poorly they were supporting the arts, and that they really were doing a terrible disservice to the citizens of Atlanta, not just as to music but to all other forms of the arts - drama and the museum, and so on and so on.
Needless to say, that turned up on the six o'clock news and the nine o'clock news, and the eleven o'clock news, and by the time everybody had seen it, the two guys that were then running the symphony, were let’s just say pretty upset - the two volunteer heads - and they resolved to bring this matter to the Board of Trustees. They started with the Executive Committee. Betty Fuller and I led the charge to oppose the proposal that his contract not be renewed. We were successful and got a vote of 8 to 2 in favor of renewing his contract.
Later on, a week or two later, there was a meeting of the Board of Trustees - Board of Directors I believe it was called, not Trustees. And the then-chairman brought this matter up and recommended to the Board that Robert's contract not be renewed. Betty and I stood and objected, saying that we had never seen a thing like this because he knew perfectly well the Executive Committee recommended 8 to 2 that the contract be renewed. So we were able to convince a large majority of the Board that the contract of Robert Shaw, to the be the music director and principal conductor, be renewed for another five years, which was longer than the last couple of renewals.
At any rate, so that's when I got mixed up in all this.
SS: Do you remember about what date, what year that was?
BC: That would have been in the '74-'75-'76 range. Now, let it be said that at that point, Betty Fuller - when Betty took over the board, she and I fired the then-business manager, and Betty took over as the general manager of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Of course, everybody knew that she had no experience doing anything like that, but Betty Fuller, to this day, is a piece of work, and don't ever tell her she can't do something. She took over that job. She went down and met with all of the members of the orchestra, explained to them what the objectives were and how she was going to carry out this task, and went back up there and sat down behind that desk and did it.
SS: She certainly did.
BC: I took over the responsibility for becoming Robert's "complaint department."
I went out there one afternoon - got there about 5:30 after work - I was a banker at the time. Caroline gave me a beer and gave Robert a Coca-Cola. We went down to his studio which was on the ground floor of this house built on the side of hill. I remember he sat on his piano bench, and I sat in a not-so-comfortable chair, and explained to him that I had come out there to become to his complaint department. When he had a problem that was bothering him, I wanted him first to talk to me about it, and let me see if there was anything I could do about it to alleviate his pain. Otherwise to address the situation and report back to him. I said, “I'm not guaranteeing that I can do anything in particular, but I promise you I'll try hard.”
At any rate we made arrangements to meet every two or three weeks, which we did for at least a year, and then it maybe was once a month. But we had these regular meetings down there in his studio where I’d have a beer and he'd have a coke and we'd talk about what was going on. Some of the things that really bothered him were losing a principal player. I remember when he lost his first violinist - the concert master - to the Washington National Orchestra.
SS: That would have been Bill Steck
So, one of the things that I think is important to all of us is how he made us feel, either as composer, a singer, a friend, colleague. What was it about him? Let's go back to T. J. just a minute.
TJA: Well, Suzanne, I want to go back and talk about the importance of the choral community in terms of saving Robert, in terms of having the subscribers write out checks to the Robert Shaw and Atlanta Symphony which the Symphony couldn't cash the checks. I thought it was a brilliant idea, and that just settled everything. They couldn't do anything about it.
Because if he wasn't the director, they couldn't cash the checks, so that put a lot of pressure on the Board. But Robert was extremely factual, extremely dedicated to truth, and I would say you would call him an honest man. And of course, he would hold no quarters. He would just say what he wanted to say. And of course, one of the problems that people don't realize is that the south never had any major orchestras in the first place. So, this is new territory for them. It's still new territory for the south in terms of – I mean you think about Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago - you think about all these orchestras. They have a long historical tradition in a community. Nothing like that exists in the south. You had promising orchestras in New Orleans and Houston and Dallas, but I'm saying that nothing compared to what was going on in these other cities. So the orchestra was sort of unprecedented in that sense, and to start off at the top is quite an unusual feat. And of course, Robert did that.
I remember - I have a friend that – well, there are two events that I remember clearly that concern Robert. Every summer Robert would go to Saratoga Springs to conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra at their summer home. So this time, he was conducting and I was in residence in Yaddo, an artist colony there in Saratoga. This time they did a Beethoven Sixth Symphony, and, as usual, I was always in Robert's dressing room after the performance. I'd go back and talk with him. And I was in the dressing room, and the principal oboist, James [John] de Lancie, came back and he said, “Maestro, I've played this symphony since high school, and under every major conductor in the world, and you were the first person to tell me how this passage made sense.”
I tell you, and of course, the key to that is that Robert studied with Julius Herford, so he knew how to analyze. So he knew how to connect motifs and ideas, and he could tell you why this was important. In other words, he thought like a composer, I would say.
And the other thing that happened, I have friend Art Lewis. He was in the Philadelphia Orchestra. He retired and he moved to Atlanta. Just the other day, I was talking with him. I was talking about how great a conductor Robert Shaw was. And he told me, he said, “Well, he may be a good conductor but he had no stick technique.” And so I asked him, I said, “How many people have you seen cry after a Bach B-minor Mass or a Beethoven Ninth?” And I said, “You talk to me about stick technique. I'm talking about people who are moved by performances.” And he says, “Well, what are we talking about?” And I said, “He had the ability to see in every piece, something that motivated him, that made it made worth doing.” And a lot of people didn't like the music because he would play Charles Ives. I mean, it's unquestionable whether Charles Ives is important or a good composer. That's no longer debated. But to say I don't want to hear Ives, you shouldn't go to the concert then. I mean, that's American music. That's our history. We take pride in that. And Robert had a tremendous commitment to American music, and he did a lot of American composers.
SS: I am trying not to say anything, because I have so many stories in my head. You should know, and this is off the record, we can edit it out. In 1972, I was just dating my husband that I married, who was in the symphony, and we had a date for Valentine's Day. That was the day that he [Robert Shaw] was let go, he was told. So, he [my future husband] picked me up crying, 'cause they loved him so much.
TJA: Leave that in. I think it's the personal things that made Shaw different.
BC: You are exactly right.
TJA: Yeah, the personal things, that he was not an ordinary person. He was an evangelist - a musical evangelist. And he believed in what he was doing. And not only that, he had the ability to sell everybody, including Toscanini, in terms of what - how do you do this to make the music live. And Toscanini said he would be his successor, and in many ways he was. And one of the things that Shaw faced was tremendous prejudice from the orchestral community. In other words, they did not want to be reduced to playing, to accompanying, an orchestra accompanying vocal pieces. And of course, they used to always complain about that, but what they never realized was, Shaw was an important conductor of orchestral music. In other words, his first few recordings were orchestral pieces because he had the stigma of just being a choral person. And, of course, musicians tend to look down on singers - performing musicians, I should say - because they don't keep time right, and they've got a whole lot of reasons and not in tune and all that. But, I mean, which is ridiculous. Good music is good music, regardless of who performs it.
SS: Well, do you want to talk about accuracy? When the LA production team came to the '96 Olympics and wanted to hear the Atlanta Symphony, I guess; they were going to use an LA chorus for the Olympic Opening because they didn't know anything about the Symphony Chorus in Atlanta, and they were just blown away.
TJA: Yes, yes.
SS: I don't know why it felt like a well-kept secret 'cause that was 1996, and we had a lot of Grammy Awards by then. But he could make you play together, and in time, and on the right notes, but he also - there was something else that I simply cannot put my finger on, that I can't hear in choral music today when I go hear it live, that he could do. There is something about the heart of the music that he could pull out of people, including the orchestra.
BC: Well, I remember after Caroline died, maybe two or three weeks after Caroline died, I went and spent most of an afternoon with Robert at their house, just talking about old times. He was getting over losing her and all of that. At any rate, I remember him saying to me one time, “You know, Yoel Levi has those strings playing better that I could ever get them to play.” And I remember thinking about that, and I looked at him and I said, “Robert, I don't have a good enough ear to hear that the strings are playing better for Yoel than they would play for you, but I'll tell you one thing for certain. I have heard you, and I have heard others conduct choral orchestral specials, the various choral masses for example, and Beethoven's Ninth.” And there are two or three others that I could think of – I can't think of now. At any rate, I said, “Put you up in front of that orchestra and that chorus, and there's nobody in the world that can touch you, because there’s something about the soul that you put into it that nobody else I've ever heard can do.” And I think that that is a key factor and that's I think what you're saying in terms of the way he worked, and the way he thought about his music and the musicians themselves.
TJA: I agree, Brad. I think people underestimate rhythm. You know, Robert taught us ‘one and two and three and'. In other words, he developed the beat, an internal beat, with the singers and all the musicians, so the beat is always divided 'one and two and three and four' so that's the constant that's going on, and against that, he has accents but they are not on the beat. They are on the off beat. And when he does that, you sort of jump, and his ability - well let me give you this example.
Alvin Singleton told me that Shaw did a Bach cantata, and it was about a week later, after they had done it, Shaw calls up the librarian and said, “I want to change all the bowing marks.” In other words, he'd been thinking about that for a week after the performance, and he wanted to perfect it, and he knew that this version would be better than that version. He had tremendous sense of rhythm. Now that sense of rhythm - most conductors have a sense of rhythm in terms of the continuation of time, but Shaw had a sense of rhythm in terms of popular music. Why? Fred Waring. Billy Rose. In other words, he didn't come down that road. He came down the road of popular music and music which people enjoyed, and therefore he could convert Mendelssohn. He could convert any composer into a popular version of where the beat should be and how to get the beat going internally. And that was a marvelous thing to watch. I'll give you an example. They played the – Darlene Davis, who used to sing with him, who lives here with us - she tells the story that they would do a B Minor Mass in Russia, in Moscow. After the performance, they went down - of course they bowed to the crowd and everything - and then went on down, took showers and came back up and the audience was still on the floor clapping. I mean, something's going on.
BC: Well, I would put it this way. Robert made the music communicate in a way that nobody else could communicate, in a way that nobody else could do. It wasn't just music.
SS: He never let, as a musician - I think that one of the things was that he never let a phrase go untended. Every single phrase you started and finished had a place to go and a place to be. Nothing was unimportant, and so you could listen to works that he did, recordings that he did, and then hear other recordings of the same thing, and I think that that is the one thing that I do hear in the music, that every phrase has an intention. And the other thing is the use of the voice and the fact the he would never let us get away with bad sounds. He makes it clear that his mother was his vocal model. She had a pure beautiful soprano voice. His sister had a very lovely voice, and so he always wanted that pure kind of beauty - not a whole lot of wobble. He didn't want it to sound fake, but he wanted just the sheer beauty of the voice without all of the extra stuff. And he wanted that in every section.
CB: Well, the other thing I’d say about it is, I never saw anyone work as hard as he worked at everything he did. Whether it was a five minute talk or a piece of music that lasted a solid hour, he worked every note. He worked - I mean, I used to watch him when he was trying to write something, and I’d finally get tired of sitting there watching him, and I'd leave, and he'd be half-way through something that was going to take five minutes. And he did music the same. He studied music the same way. He was a great student. He didn't have any formal musical training, as I understand it, like most musicians, but he - and maybe that was a piece of it – maybe it was some kind of inferiority complex that made him work so hard. But I never saw anybody work that hard.
SS: One of the things that I felt was rare, too, was that he could take a body of people like an orchestra or a chorus and treat us like one person. He made it such a personal experience to everyone there, that when you meet people today that had a weekend experience, and that was all they ever knew of Shaw, they still have such vivid memories of the way they felt about the performance and what he pulled out of them. It was always, always, like that. And so that's what's amazing to me. It didn't matter where he was, whether he knew the people or not, it became a personal experience to everybody in the group.
TJA: I have to tell this story about members of the chorus. They'd come home and see their husbands or their wives and a lot of women would say, “Shaw was so mean and had me crying,” and all that. “Why don't you quit?” “Oh, no! Oh, no! I'm not talking about quitting! No indeed.”
CB: What I was thinking about was that Robert got here in the late '60s. And the way I heard he got here was that he [Charlie Yates] was in Cleveland, Ohio, one time and was playing golf, and was going to play golf with a couple of his friends, and he’d heard about this fella Shaw, who was an understudy under George Szell, Robert having been sent there by Toscanini for Szell to teach him how to conduct an orchestra. At any rate, Robert didn't have any golf shoes, and I'm not sure he had ever played golf, but if he had, maybe a couple of times. And I remember hearing from Charlie Yates who was
the guy that started the Woodruff Arts Center, what was then the Atlanta Arts Alliance, that Robert played in bare feet. And it was after that round that Charlie Yates decided that we had to bring him to Atlanta and make a full-time professional orchestra out of what had been a part-time orchestra. And that's how Robert got hired - playing barefoot golf with Charlie Yates and whoever the other two were.
At any rate, another piece of this is that we were still dealing, in the late 60's, with what was pretty much still a segregated south. Robert quietly made it his business to make sure that that was not the case. Early on, he involved the choruses from Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in the work of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, and I am sure that had something to do with his making T. J. his colleague and friend and pupil and partner in the best sense.
CB: And you didn't think you were his subordinate.
TJA: No, no, not at all
CB: He's the guy that changed Atlanta's perspectives on the arts especially. Well this Treemonisha thing is a piece of that, too.
TJA: Yeah, well Treemonisha - he worked with Wendell Whalum who trained the chorus, and Wendell Whalum was in charge of the Music Department at Morehouse, and he was a marvelous musician and he was close to Shaw. They got along very well, and in fact, you wouldn't have a Christmas concert without the Morehouse and Spelman Glee Clubs. And incidentally, those Christmas concerts were out of this world because it was orchestrated by Shaw in that the pieces that were played were all Christmas music, but the sense of sequence, one piece followed another, and the sense of drama that was in just the music alone, is just unprecedented. I don't think we've ever had anything like that in music.
SS: And it went on for years.
TJA: Oh, yes, it went on for years.
SS: We have a copy of one of those programs on the site. (click for program copy)
TJA: It was amazing to me what he would pull out in terms of Christmas music, and it was related to Christmas. But how of all this would fit together with the Atlanta Chorus, the Symphony Orchestra, Morehouse and Spelman Glee Clubs, and it was all one program, one fabric that just went on continuously. It wouldn't just start and stop, start and stop, or take a break here. No, it was just one continuous thing.
SS: He paid a lot of attention to tempi and also to the keys that the pieces were in.
TJA: Broadway. Robert Shaw conducted on Broadway. He knew what Broadway was, and so he just brought Broadway on a higher level. And nobody would think that that would be important, but it is important, it is important, and he proved it.
CB: You've got it