Despite working with thousands of vocalists, musicians and producers during his career that spanned over six decades, prolific conductor Robert Shaw never forgot a face.
That dedication to those who worked with and under him will be honored at Chautauqua Institution this weekend during two screenings of the award-winning documentary, “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices.” They will take place at 3:30 p.m. Friday and at 4:30 p.m. Saturday in the Chautauqua Cinema.
Robert Woods, co-founder of Telarc International, and Elaine Martone, a producer at the Grammy-winning production company, will participate in Q-and-A sessions after the screenings.
“The chorus could have a 150 people in it and when he looked at that chorus, every person who was on the receiving end of that look thought he was looking at them,” said Woods, who performed in choirs Shaw conducted, and later produced some of Shaw’s work.
During their work with Telarc, Woods and Martone produced 41 recordings of Shaw’s performances and work with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he joined in 1967 and conducted full-time for 21 years. Shaw also founded the orchestra’s in-house chorus in 1970.
Their relationship with the conductor began when Woods met him in 1969 in Ohio at an orchestral music festival. Woods said he had long admired Shaw and broke a previous commitment for the opportunity to work with him.
After he later founded Telarc, Woods came to Shaw with a proposition to record the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s work if they funded some equipment. This was the start of a long relationship that involved laughing, arguing and mutual respect.
Martone said one of the highlights of her entire life was recording Shaw’s work in France, where he held annual workshops. One year, she and Woods were at the airport, about to board their flight to France, when they received notice from Shaw that they should turn around. He was worried the music wasn’t good enough yet, a sentiment he colored with profanity, Martone said.
They stayed their course, though, and during that trip they recorded Shaw’s version of “Rachmaninoff: Vespers.” Martone said the music gave her chills, but Shaw was not confident in it. The piece went on to earn multiple Grammy awards, contributing to the total of 16 Grammys that Shaw earned.
“We all have that same thing where we think that what we’re doing just will never measure up or stand the test of time, but that was just not true,” Martone said.
Martone has been the recording producer for Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus since 1995, so she has been able to see how the choir has evolved without Shaw’s presence. She said the choir has continued to be one of the most professional groups she has ever worked with under their new leader, Norman Mackenzie, even though they are technically amateurs.
“Shaw’s spirit and Shaw’s intentions are still felt when those fine choral members sing,” Martone said. “A lot of the techniques they used are the techniques that he developed because Norman is an advocate and Norman continues the tradition.”
Shaw wasn’t always a saint to work with, though, both Martone and Woods said. He used bold profanity regularly, which Woods said the documentary tones down but doesn’t sanitize. He also sometimes had a short temper, in part because he had high expectations, Woods said, and sometimes they got in knock-down, drag-out arguments.
“For every bad thing that he did, though, he always did something so remarkable that you forgave him,” Woods said.
In the end, though, Woods recalls all of those fights with an accompanying laugh. He said jumping ship from his commitment to work with Shaw is one of the greatest decisions he ever made, and he was thrilled to be able to witness both Shaw’s and the choir’s growth over the years.
“He didn’t have a lot of professional training,” Woods said. “He didn’t have any kind of training that a normal conductor of an orchestra would have. But he had such unbelievable determination.”