The Missing Note

Dec. 21, 2004
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.

About the Author

John McClenahen | Former Senior Editor, IndustryWeek

 John S. McClenahen, is an occasional essayist on the Web site of IndustryWeek, the executive management publication from which he retired in 2006. He began his journalism career as a broadcast journalist at Westinghouse Broadcasting’s KYW in Cleveland, Ohio. In May 1967, he joined Penton Media Inc. in Cleveland and in September 1967 was transferred to Washington, DC, the base from which for nearly 40 years he wrote primarily about national and international economics and politics, and corporate social responsibility.
      McClenahen, a native of Ohio now residing in Maryland, is an award-winning writer and photographer. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently An Unexpected Poet (2013), and several books of photographs, including Black, White, and Shades of Grey (2014). He also is the author of a children’s book, Henry at His Beach (2014).
      His photograph “Provincetown: Fog Rising 2004” was selected for the Smithsonian Institution’s 2011 juried exhibition Artists at Work and displayed in the S. Dillon Ripley Center at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., from June until October 2011. Five of his photographs are in the collection of St. Lawrence University and displayed on campus in Canton, New York.
      John McClenahen’s essay “Incorporating America: Whitman in Context” was designated one of the five best works published in The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies during the twelve-year editorship of R. Barry Leavis of Rollins College. John McClenahen’s several journalism prizes include the coveted Jesse H. Neal Award. He also is the author of the commemorative poem “Upon 50 Years,” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of Wolfson College Cambridge, and appearing in “The Wolfson Review.”
      John McClenahen received a B.A. (English with a minor in government) from St. Lawrence University, an M.A., (English) from Western Reserve University, and a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University, where he also pursued doctoral studies. At St. Lawrence University, he was elected to academic honor societies in English and government and to Omicron Delta Kappa, the University’s highest undergraduate honor. John McClenahen was a participant in the 32nd Annual Wharton Seminars for Journalists at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. During the Easter Term of the 1986 academic year, John McClenahen was the first American to hold a prestigious Press Fellowship at Wolfson College, Cambridge, in the United Kingdom.
      John McClenahen has served on the Editorial Board of Confluence: The Journal of Graduate Liberal Studies and was co-founder and first editor of Liberal Studies at Georgetown. He has been a volunteer researcher on the William Steinway Diary Project at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and has been an assistant professorial lecturer at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.


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