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Four decades ago, the great--and not easily pleased--Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was conducting Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with his NBC Symphony Orchestra. After hearing the chorus, which had been prepared by Robert Shaw, perform the glorious choral movement that ends the symphony, Toscanini turned to his players and said, "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for."
And in Robert Shaw the art of choral conducting in this country had found its genius. For more than half a century he set the standard of excellence for choral music, enjoying a status of patriarch of vocal musical interpretation. His first major honor came as early as 1943 from the National Association of Composers and Conductors which cited him as "America's greatest choral conductor."
Robert Shaw came from a clerical family. His father and grandfather were ministers. More importantly, perhaps, his mother sang in church choirs. In school, his serious interests were in philosophy, literature, and religion, but at Pomona College he did join the glee club. Then, in a chain of events right out of a Warner Brothers backstage musical, Shaw was asked to take over the choir for an ailing faculty leader the same year that Fred Waring happened to be making a film on the campus. Waring was impressed, asked him to go to New York to develop a glee club for him, and a star conductor was born.
With the founding of the Robert Shaw Chorale in 1948, which Shaw was to conduct for another 20 years, his fame and influence in the field became second to none in the world, leading the group on extensive tours throughout Europe, the Soviet Union, Latin America, and the Middle East under the auspices of the State Department. For this esteemed chorale, he commissioned pieces from the leading composers of the day: Bela Bartok, Darius Milhaud, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland.
In 1967 he accepted the directorship of the Atlanta Symphony and saw it grow from a local band to a fine major-league orchestra, establishing a magnificent choral adjunct and leading the combined forces in many definitive recordings of the symphonic-choral music literature.
"Robert Shaw is without doubt the leading choral conductor in the United States," Isaac Stern said. "He is a practicing and acknowledged master of an art that he teaches with passion and commitment."