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Arts & Culture

AMERICAN MASTERS: Robert Shaw - Man Of Many Voices

Robert Shaw in concert, mid-1990s.
Courtesy of Bard Wrisley/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Shaw in concert, mid-1990s.

Airs Friday, June 28, 2019 at 9 p.m. on KPBS 2

Narrated by David Hyde Pierce, AMERICAN MASTERS “Robert Shaw – Man Of Many Voices” traces the journey of one of America’s greatest choral music conductors.

Renowned for his interpretations of classical music’s choral masterpieces, Robert Shaw (April 30, 1916 – Jan. 25, 1999) had no formal training yet inspired generations of musicians with the power of music.

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Known as the “dean of American choral singing,” Shaw’s career spanned six decades. He sold millions of recordings and received 16 Grammy Awards, a George Peabody Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Music in America, a Guggenheim fellowship and a National Medal of the Arts.

Amidst the triumphs of his musical career, the documentary reveals the demons that haunted – and sometimes threatened to derail – this complex and flawed man. Insecure in his abilities even as he found success, Shaw drank heavily throughout his career and was prone to angry outbursts.

Robert Shaw was a popular figure both on and off the radio.
Courtesy of Gilmore Music Library of Yale University
Robert Shaw was a popular figure both on and off the radio.

Interviews include musicians Yo-Yo Ma, Sylvia McNair, Alice Parker, Marietta Simpson and Florence Kopleff, as well as family members, admirers and friends, including President Jimmy Carter and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Andrew Young.

President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter (right) greet Robert Shaw (left) at the White House, March 1980.
Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library
President and Mrs. Jimmy Carter (right) greet Robert Shaw (left) at the White House, March 1980.
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Packed with powerful performances, the film features a treasure trove of rare archival letters, photographs and concert footage gathered from around the world.

“Robert Shaw – Man Of Many Voices” explores the improbable story of Shaw’s life and career, from his childhood as a preacher’s son in rural Red Bluff, California, to his unexpected move to classical music after popular band leader Fred Waring offered him a job in New York.

He quickly made a name for himself as a conductor and led choruses for legendary orchestra conductors from Arturo Toscanini to George Szell.

In 1941, he founded the groundbreaking Collegiate Chorale in New York, one of the first racially integrated chorales. An early champion of civil rights, his integrated chorales were among the first to break the color barrier in the American South.

Shaw took his inspiring music on the road, bringing his ensembles to small towns across America and to several continents.

Shaw later conducted orchestras and choruses in San Diego, Cleveland and Atlanta, where he served as music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for over 20 years, raising its profile from a regional group to one of national importance.

Robert Shaw energetically conducts an Atlanta rehearsal. (undated photo)
Courtesy of Joe DeCasseres/ Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Shaw energetically conducts an Atlanta rehearsal. (undated photo)

President Jimmy Carter chose Shaw to perform music at his 1977 Presidential Inauguration and appointed him to the National Council on the Arts in 1979.

At 72, he left the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and began to guest conduct the nation’s greatest orchestras and lead annual workshops and performances at Carnegie Hall with America’s finest musicians.

Robert Shaw in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 3, 1980.
Courtesy of Courtesy Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
Robert Shaw in concert at Carnegie Hall, April 3, 1980.

Shaw died of a massive stroke on Jan. 25, 1999. He had recently recorded Dvořák’s “Stabat Mater,” a piece he had never performed before, and was working on an English translation of Brahms’ “A German Requiem.”

Noteworthy Facts:

  • The U.S. State Department sent the Robert Shaw Chorale on several extensive tours through Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East.
  • Shaw’s album “Christmas Hymns and Carols” was the first certified gold record by a classical artist.
  • In 1978, Shaw and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra recorded the first digital classical album, Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” an all-orchestral piece.
  • Robert Shaw was self-taught and did not plan on a career in music. Shaw became popular in an intensely competitive business where musical pedigree is highly valued. And yet, he was not a gifted singer, lacked formal training as a keyboardist and conductor and, as a young man, never dreamed of having a life in music.
  • Robert Shaw advocated for integrated ensembles and audiences during the civil rights movement. Shaw’s Collegiate Chorale of the 1940s was one of the first integrated musical ensembles of its kind. He refused to perform unless audiences were integrated. The maestro was specific – not just access, but access to the better seats in the hall.
Robert Shaw in rehearsal asking more of his ensemble. (undated photo)
Courtesy of Gilmore Music Library of Yale University
Robert Shaw in rehearsal asking more of his ensemble. (undated photo)

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Credits:

Directed by Pamela Roberts and Peter Miller. Executive Producer is Kiki Wilson. Producers are Peter Miller, David Druckenmiller, Pamela Roberts, and Kiki Wilson. The film is written by Pamela Roberts, Kiki Wilson, and Peter Miller. Amy Linton is the editor and associate producer. Michael Lines is the director of photography. The original score is by Fred Story. Narration is by David Hyde Pierce. Michael Kantor is AMERICAN MASTERS series executive producer.

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