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Robert Shaw elevated choral music

Giants who shaped American arts

Through recordings, performances, and a variety of educational projects, Robert Shaw was the driving force behind the transformation of choral music into one of the most popular communal endeavors in the performing arts.

Shaw, the guiding light of the world of American choral music for much of the past six decades, died Jan. 25.

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"The physical act of singing undoubtedly delights people," he once said.

The son of an evangelical Protestant minister, Shaw and his four siblings spent much of their childhood singing and performing in churches around southern California.

With degrees in comparative religion and literature, Shaw seemed destined for either a life in the church or one in politics. But in 1938 he caught the attention of Fred Waring, and the singer-conductor was so impressed by Shaw, he asked him to help form a chorale in New York.

When the Fred Waring Singers became an unmitigated success, Shaw's mission in music seemed sealed. In 1941, Shaw started his own group, the Collegiate Chorale.

After World War II, Shaw formed a professional ensemble, the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, and began touring. Over the next 17 years, the ensemble performed in more than 30 countries through the auspices of the US State Department. Shaw and the chorale also garnered innumerable honors, including four Grammy Awards.

Shaw also prepared choruses for symphony orchestras under such renowned conductors as Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter.

But he again expanded his horizons when he began working directly with orchestras. He was conductor of the San Diego Symphony in the 1950s, associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1956 to 1967, and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he built into a world-class organization, from 1967 to 1988, later becoming Conductor Laureate.

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Shaw was modest about his role as a conductor. Gracious and loquacious, he ruled the podium with the utmost respect for the music and the musicians under his baton, using his trademark blend of humor and profundity to engage both musicians and audiences.

"Music is ultimately an art of collaboration, not personal showmanship," he said in an interview a few years ago. "Even at the moment of a cappella singing, one is obliged to remember that somebody else wrote the song."

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