Atlanta Symphony legend to be celebrated this week

A member of the chorus once asked Robert Shaw where to breathe in a particularly tricky passage.

Shaw looked at the questioner calmly. Breathe before the piece begins, he said.

Shaw, a singular, sometimes prickly personality, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1967-1988, built the ASO into an ensemble of national prominence and the ASO Chorus into an unparalleled choir. He would have been 100 years old next month.

To acknowledge the occasion, the ASO is hosting a series of events, beginning with a concert Thursday and Saturday featuring the orchestra, the ASO Chorus and a program of Bach, Mozart, Brahms, Durufle and others.

You can hear audio samples of the program here.

Though he died in 1999, Shaw’s imprint on the ASO and the ASO Chorus is still indelible. He was one of the most revered choral conductors in the country, and many choral directors in Atlanta, including Michael O’Neal, of the Michael O’Neal Singers, developed their chops singing under Shaw, or under those who studied with Shaw.

O’Neal has written about the impact of singing the “Messiah” under Shaw, and writes that he is “widely recognized as the finest American choral director of the 20th Century.”

Rick Clement, a tenor soloist with the ASO Chorus, was recently interviewed by Evans Mirageas, the ASO’s vice president of artistic planning, about performing with Shaw.

“Shaw had a way — if you were an individual or a chorus — he had a way of making you feel like you were either pleasing or displeasing the composer himself,” Clement said. “He really did talk to you as if you weren’t just disappointing him, you were disappointing Mozart.”

More celebration of Shaw’s unique personality will be on display in “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices,” a documentary of his life, set to premiere next month, also at Symphony Hall.

Made with the help of a grant from the Georgia Music Foundation, the documentary follows Shaw from his work with pop music bandleader Fred Waring through his years studying under George Szell at the Cleveland Symphony to his time in Atlanta.

The movie will be screened April 24, closer to Shaw’s April 30 birthday, but audiences at the ASO concerts this week will get a sneak peek. A view of the trailer is available at

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