The Missing Note

Robert Shaw focused on the best, as should we all.

On Monday, Jan. 25, The Wall Street Journal took note of the death, two days before in Chicago, of Jay Pritzker, the founder of the Hyatt Corp. hotel chain. And it was appropriate that the newspaper do so. Pritzker was a business success, a person other executives could identify with and whose hotels they continue to know first-hand. But on Jan. 26, the Journal did not note the death, the day before in New Haven, Conn., of Robert Shaw. And that is to be regretted. Shaw, to a greater extent than any other conductor of the 20th century, was identified with excellence in choral music. Indeed, he was this century's standard of excellence in choral music. From his collegiate glee club in California, to the Robert Shaw Chorale, to his magnificent years with the Cleveland Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, to most recently with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, from Bach and Brahms to Hindemith and Poulenc and Prt, Shaw gave excellence in music a powerful voice -- and never more exquisitely than in a score's softest passages. So why should Shaw's death have been noted in The Wall Street Journal? Why do I choose to fill this space and take your time to celebrate Shaw and his considerable achievements? Although I cannot recall him ever using the buzzwords of business, there can be no doubt that Shaw knew how to make a person work -- to want to work. Anyone who ever had the opportunity to work with Shaw knows how much harder he made you work than you ever thought you could -- and how much you wanted to work for him and to work for yourself. He was a leader, a coach, a choral CEO and COO. Shaw had a vision and a purpose statement for every piece of choral music and for every group that he conducted. He was a communicator -- in rehearsal, in performance, in the explanatory letters he wrote to his choruses, and in the program notes he wrote for audiences. (One Shaw pet peeve: the spectacle of an audience rising and then standing throughout the Hallelujah Chorus of Handel's oratorio Messiah. In his program notes, Shaw would implore the audience not to emulate some errant 18th Century European monarch who mistook the music for his country's national anthem.) Shaw was a master manager with the rare ability to combine the efforts of individual contributors (the soloists) with teams (the sopranos, altos, tenors, basses, and baritones) to produce a performance that exceeded expectations -- occasionally even his own. But as tough and demanding as Shaw was, he did not belittle. He did not humiliate. Rather there was the quiet suggestion -- "Don't be afraid, even as you are being reflective, to send your voice to the last row." There were the metaphors -- as if the very words you were singing or saying were alive, which to him, of course, they were. There were the looks from piercing blue eyes. And there were the almost spiritual smiles and Shaw's wonderful contagious chuckle. For as much as he was a accomplished musician, Shaw also was a humanitarian. He saw the best in human beings and helped give it expression. He was a "small-d democrat", as commentator Martin Goldsmith mentioned during Performance Today's January 26th two-hour tribute to Shaw on National Public Radio. And perhaps that's why the November 1995 performance in Washington National Cathedral of Paul Hindemith's When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd, the words taken from the poem by small-d democrat Walt Whitman, remains among the most impressive of Shaw's performances. As much as Shaw challenged the human voice and the human mind, he sensed the essence of the human spirit and sent it soaring. There were not two Robert Shaws, not the master manager and the humanitarian. There was one Robert Shaw in whom they were one. In touching our reason, he also touched our emotions, and by embracing both he directly and indirectly guided the achievement of excellence. And that's something worthy of executive emulation. And that's why the missing note is to be regretted.

Hide comments

Comments

  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
Publish