A racial progressive in the Jim Crow era. A cultural savior for the city of Atlanta who was nevertheless dismissed twice by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. A consummate musician praised by maestro Arturo Toscanini, though he himself had no formal musical training. The conduit for some of the world’s most heavenly music, but also an earthbound womanizer, boozer and absentee father.
Considering what a protean, tremendous and tremendously flawed man he was, it’s a wonder no one had made a film about conductor Robert Shaw before.
“The man was just a behemoth in giving to the cultural community,” says the film’s executive producer, Kiki Wilson. “And he never stopped.”
With two degrees in choral conducting herself, Wilson sang for 32 years as a member of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, 18 of those under Shaw’s baton. It was in 1988, the last year of Shaw’s 21-year tenure as music director and conductor of the ASO, that he led the company on a final, grand European tour.
In East Berlin, in the last months before the wall came down, Shaw conducted Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, and the normally staid, reserved German audience responded with a sustained, tear-streaked ovation that lasted 20 minutes.
Seeing her conductor’s ability to cross cultures and unite a divided world with the power of music was the initial “impetus for getting off my duff” to start thinking about making a film about Shaw, says Wilson.
“I came home from that tour and that amazing concert in East Berlin, and I said, ‘Somebody needs to make a film about this man,’” she recalls. “He touched so many people in so many ways.”
Shaw died in 1999, and Wilson was unable to start working seriously on the film until the death of her own husband and her retirement. That was right around the time the recession hit, so the film has taken eight years to complete, “which is not atypical for a documentary like this,” she says.
David Hyde Pierce narrates Man of Many Voices, and for its director, Wilson courted New York filmmaker Peter Miller, who really didn’t know much about Robert Shaw and wondered why anyone would want to make a movie about a choral director.
Then, Wilson told him a little bit more about Shaw’s life. “When he got into the story, he sort of couldn’t believe this guy really walked the earth,” she says. Part of the challenge – and the obligation – of the film, they thought, was to cover both the good and the bad in Shaw’s life and career.
“‘Flawed’ is the perfect word for him,” she says. “He worked maniacally. He would go down to his studio at eight or nine in the morning, and you couldn’t interrupt him until dinnertime.” Wilson learned that the hard way when she called his house about a critical issue and “Caroline [Saulus, Shaw’s second wife] said, ‘I can’t talk to him about it until 5:00.’”
If musicians couldn’t always get Shaw’s attention, it was worse for his family, which included four children from two marriages.
“The kids basically grew up without a father, both the first family and the second family,” Wilson says. “He was an absentee father, so his death at his son’s play is so tragic.” Shaw had traveled to New Haven to attend his son’s production of Endgame at Yale University when he suffered the stroke that killed him.
You could argue that what Robert Shaw didn’t give his family, he gave instead to the world. If Wilson has a regret about her film, it’s that even at feature-length, it still can’t include the complete scope of Shaw’s story, or fully convey the man’s passion for work.
“There’s no question for me what really doesn’t come through in the film is the sheer volume of service that he provided to the musical community,” she says. “Every minute that he wasn’t committed to Atlanta, he was flying to North Dakota or Vermont — anywhere in the country, anyone who asked him to come.” That included young musicians in high schools and colleges. “And he recorded, recorded, recorded.” Shaw won 14 Grammys for those recordings, not to mention innumerable other awards.
“That energy, that drive, is part of the story that we don’t quite get,” Wilson says. “But we had to keep this to less than four hours.” (For the record, this cut of the film comes in at a fleeting 71 minutes.)
Wilson, who personally interviewed many of the Shaw collaborators and family members featured in the documentary, has been touring the country with the film, screening at film festivals, where it has racked up awards. (It was shown last month in Georgia by Macon Film Guild, with a Q&A with Wesleyan professor of music Nadine Cheek, and a live performance by her student choral group singing songs arranged by Shaw.) Next month, Robert Shaw – Man of Many Voices airs on Georgia Public Broadcasting.