Robert Shaw; Dean of U.S. Choral Conductors


Robert Shaw, who represented the epitome of choral conducting for six decades and has been called the dean of American choral conducting, died Monday. He was 82.

Shaw, also known for his work with orchestras, died in a hospital in New Haven, Conn., after suffering a stroke Sunday night. Shaw had gone from his Atlanta home to New Haven to see “Endgame,” a play directed by his son Thomas as his senior project at Yale University.

Best known as conductor of his storied Robert Shaw Chorale, which performed around the world, Shaw also was music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony from 1967 to 1988. After retiring from the Atlanta Symphony, he became principal guest conductor of the San Diego Symphony and conducted annual choral workshops at New York’s Carnegie Hall.

In 1991, Shaw earned a Kennedy Center Honor, in 1992 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts and last year he was inducted into the American Classical Music Hall of Fame in Cincinnati.


He won 14 Grammy awards, and his latest album has been nominated for the 1999 Grammy for best classical album.

Shaw, a native of Red Bluff, Calif., earned critical attention and praise decades before those achievements.

“Robert Shaw is to choral singing what Toscanini is to orchestras--he’s a sort of a high priest to those who are convinced that his particular form of musical direction is the ultima Thule of artistry,” Times columnist Bill Henry wrote in 1947.

“The chances are that if choral singing continues its emergence from the wilderness of music sounds,” Henry concluded, “Pomona’s young Bob Shaw will be the Elijah who will lead the movement.”

The prediction proved accurate. Modestly, Shaw acknowledged in accepting the Kennedy award: “The fact that choral singing has a much higher place in classical music than it did 50 or 60 years ago, I think, is reflected in the Kennedy Center Honor. I’m not vain enough to think I did it. It’s recognition of an area of art.”

As early as 1943, Shaw was named “America’s greatest choral conductor” by the National Assn. of Composers and Conductors.

Shaw was the son and grandson of ministers, and his mother sang in her husband’s various church choirs. Their five children were all trained to play piano and sing in harmony.

As a religion and English student at Pomona College, Shaw conducted its glee club, and when he went to religious conferences or other youth meetings, he organized sing-alongs. After graduation in 1938, Shaw was asked by the radio conductor Fred Waring to organize and conduct the Fred Waring Glee Club.


Shaw remained with Waring until 1945. As a Times writer described his choral duties: “He warmed ‘em up, put ‘em through their paces, polished up the numbers and turned ‘em over to Waring fit and slick.”

The young Shaw, once referred to as “that miraculous young man who does wondrous things with choruses,” found time to direct the chorus for Broadway’s “Carmen Jones” and another for an ice show.

Shaw also organized his own Collegiate Chorale in New York in 1941 and led it until 1954. Awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, he taught choral conducting at the Tanglewood in Massachusetts and the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

Shaw also studied orchestral conducting, and in 1946 made his debut at the podium of the Naumburg Orchestra in New York.


The Robert Shaw Chorale was created in 1948 and was Shaw’s principal interest for 20 years until he joined the Atlanta Symphony. Shaw conducted concerts of the chorale in Russia and 15 other countries in Europe, as well as in the Middle East and South America. He selected contemporary composers to write scores for his group, among them Bela Bartok, Darius Milhaud and Aaron Copland.

In the mid-1950s, Shaw conducted summer concerts of the San Diego Symphony, and from 1956 until 1967 he served as associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, understudying its leader, George Szell.

Former Times music critic Martin Bernheimer applauded the orchestral work, writing in 1966 on the eve of Shaw’s move to Atlanta: “It is worth noting that Shaw has become an all-purpose conductor first, and specifically a conductor of choruses second.”

Bernheimer, adding that Shaw could rightly have rested on his choral laurels, asked the maestro in 1966 if taking the cuts in prestige and pay to be Cleveland’s second banana had been tough.


“Who cares?” Shaw answered. “My whole life has been a series of self-effacements! When I left Fred Waring to form my own chorale they told me I was stepping backward. When I curtailed activities of the [Robert Shaw] Chorale, people sent condolences despite the fact that in Cleveland I was to lead over 70 concerts a year on my own.”

Even Szell, he added, had invited him to “cry on his shoulder” when he took the Atlanta job.

But Shaw transformed the fledgling Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from a part-time group of 60 amateurs with a $300,000 annual budget to a full-time, 93-member orchestra with a multimillion-dollar budget. He led it on tours across the country and conducted its Carnegie Hall debut in 1971 and its performance at Jimmy Carter’s presidential inauguration in 1977. A year after that, he introduced the Atlanta orchestra to his Pomona alma mater for a concert in the Claremont Colleges artist series at Bridges Music Auditorium.

From his youth, Shaw was known for his ability to assemble mostly volunteer singers (often from a variety of church or school choirs) and mold them, with only a couple of rehearsals, into a remarkable wall of modulated sound.


“I’ve often thought it was as difficult to be a professional about music as it would be to be a professional about sex,” Shaw told The Times with a laugh in 1991 while working with volunteer singers in San Diego. “It’s terribly important to retain that amateur spirit, because the root of ‘amateur’ means to love what you are doing.”

In addition to his work in San Diego, Shaw conducted frequently throughout Southern California. He was a popular guest at the Hollywood Bowl where, among other concerts, in 1976 he directed the bowl’s first performance of Hector Berlioz’s “Requiem” with the USC National Workshop Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. He also was a frequent visitor at the podium of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Music Center, where he frequently served as guest conductor of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

Shaw is survived by three children from his first marriage, Dr. Johanna Shaw, Peter and John; a son from his second marriage, Thomas; and a stepson, Alex Hitz.