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I just finished watching Volumes One and Two of
“Carnegie Hall Presents Robert Shaw: Preparing a
Masterpiece,” a two-DVD set released on the Carnegie
Hall label. The focus of the first DVD was a 1990
Robert Shaw Choral Workshop of Johannes Brahms
“German Requiem,” while the second disc prepared
the chorus for a 1992 performance of “Missa Solemnis,”
by Ludwig Van Beethoven.

This was the first time I’ve seen Robert Shaw (1916-1999)
in action, either rehearsing a chorus or conducting a choral
performance. It was a truly enlightening experience!
These discs are particularly invaluable because they capture
Shaw’s painstakingly thorough choral drills. In both cases,
the 140 workshop attendees were chosen based upon
audition tape performances that were submitted from
around the United States. At a running time of
approximately 158 minutes, the Brahms DVD was the
longer of the two, providing the most detailed depiction
of Shaw’s techniques. The Beethoven DVD is shorter,
by about one hour. He actually began these rehearsals by
having the chorus perform physical stretches, before
warming them up with vocalizations. Shaw taught them
to numerically count while singing the notes, thereby
isolating issues such as pitch and rhythm. The use of
the text was added later in the four to five-day period,
prior to the performance. He also required the singers
to move and walk around while singing, presumably to
acclimate them to the acoustics of the performance venue.

Needless to say, by the time these workshops were filmed,
Robert Shaw was a world-renowned choral conducting icon,
known for his preparation of choruses for both
Arturo Toscanini and George Szell during the 1940’s to
1960’s. In fact, Shaw also served as an assistant conductor
under Szell in Cleveland for 11 years, which allowed him
to gain invaluable experience preparing an orchestra. From
1967 through 1988, Shaw was the Music Director of the
Atlanta Symphony, raising its standards and building its
reputation as one of the finest orchestras in the United
States. He continued to conduct and record with the
Atlanta Symphony until his death, and received a
Kennedy Center Honor in 1991.

There are many instances throughout these two DVDs
where Shaw provides his own thoughts and insights
into the music at hand, and there are also many
cutaway interviews showcasing Workshop participants,
many of whom are choral directors themselves. Other
interviews are provided with the distinguished soloists
enlisted for the performances of these works, which
include soprano Sylvia McNair and bass Samuel Ramey
for the Brahms piece, and soprano Benita Valente,
mezzo-soprano Florence Quivar, tenor Neil Rosenshein,
and bass Alastair Miles for the Beethoven piece.

Unfortunately, since the focus of these discs is on
the preparation of these two masterworks, precious
little footage is devoted to the actual Carnegie Hall
performances of them. By the way, Maestro Shaw and
the choir have wonderful collaborators in the members
of the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, who provide competent
support to all of these artists. The vast majority of the
rehearsal footage is of the choir with the rehearsal
pianist, sans orchestra.

This exhaustive footage of choral rehearsals was a
first for me, and I’m the richer for it. Of course, I’d
seen numerous films of famous conductors working
with orchestras, but never from the “ground up”
perspective. These DVDs present a “fly on the wall”
opportunity to watch perhaps the most influential
figure in choral performance, doing what he does
best. I look forward to watching the other volumes
in this series, and give it the highest marks.

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