Those who watch the documentary “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices,” premiering at Symphony Hall Sunday, may have a hard time recognizing the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra that Shaw inherited in 1967.
The ensemble had been performing in the old Municipal Auditorium, which they shared with Live Atlanta Wrestling and the circus.
It was composed of part-time musicians — even the concert master had a day job in insurance.
But big changes were coming. The disastrous 1962 air crash at Orly in Paris triggered an enormous wave of public support for the arts, and the Atlanta Memorial Arts Center opened in 1968. Hiring Shaw as the new music director at the ASO was the capstone of that effort.
Shaw turned a semi-professional orchestra into one of the country’s great ensembles. He fought tooth and nail to improve musicians’ salaries to attract top talent. And he made his board angry enough to fire him twice.
Brad Currey, chairman of the board at the symphony in the 1970s, said when Shaw wasn’t risking termination, he worked wonders.
“He single-handedly created something in Atlanta that was world-class before we had anything — except Coca-Cola, maybe — that was even remotely close to world-class,” Currey said.
Six years in the making, the documentary tells the story of an aspiring preacher, who, with no musical training, becomes the most influential choral director in the nation and transforms Atlanta’s musical scene.
Shaw often found himself at the center of a national story. In October of 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Shaw was touring Russia with the Robert Shaw Chorale.
In 1988, the year that he was somewhat acrimoniously replaced as music director at the ASO, Shaw led the symphony and chorus in a tour of East Berlin, performing Beethoven on the other side of the Berlin Wall a year before it would be torn down.
Currey said Berlin audience members were still applauding 30 minutes after Shaw had changed his clothes and left the building.
Kiki Wilson, a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus for 34 years, sang at the Berlin appearance, and that day was the beginning of her fixation on producing a Shaw documentary. With seed money from ASO patron Lessie Smithgall and a team of collaborators, Wilson’s dream is almost a reality, though editors were still tweaking the finished product a week before showtime.
“I haven’t seen it yet in its final glory,” Wilson said last week. “It’s still cooking.”
She is partly responsible for seeing that the documentary isn’t an unalloyed valentine.
Shaw battled problems with alcohol and was estranged from the three children of his first marriage.
“Some of those older generation people did not want us to talk about the dark side of Robert Shaw,” Wilson said. “I got significant push-back. I knew what the answer was: You cannot tell the story if you’re going to whitewash it. You also cannot diminish the man. He had weaknesses and frailties. He loved his alcohol. He loved his women. These are parts of his life. When you look at terribly talented people — of which he was one — this often goes with the territory.”
By all accounts, Shaw’s second marriage, to Caroline Sauls Hitz in 1973, changed his direction. “Caroline absolutely saved his life,” Currey said.
After 1988, Shaw became an in-demand guest conductor and established a yearly choral workshop at Carnegie Hall. In 1991, he was honored at the Kennedy Center for his lifetime of achievement.
“It was a new phase, almost a golden phase of his career,” co-producer David Druckenmiller said.
In 1999, Shaw was at Yale University to see his son Thomas perform when he suffered a massive stroke.
On April 30, Shaw would have been 100 years old. The documentary film is part of a year of events scheduled to honor him.
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