Robert Shaw was an American conductor most famous for his work with his namesake Chorale, with the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus, and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. Shaw received 14 Grammy awards, four ASCAP awards for service to contemporary music, the first Guggenheim Fellowship ever awarded to a conductor, the Alice M. Ditson Conductor’s Award for Service to American Music; the George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America, the Gold Baton Award of the American Symphony Orchestra League for “distinguished service to music and the arts, the American National Medal of Arts, France’s Officier des Arts et des Lettres, England’s Gramophone Award, and was a 1991 recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors.
Shaw was born in Red Bluff, California. In 1941, he founded the Collegiate Chorale, a group notable in its day for its racial integration. In 1945, the group performed Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 with the NBC Symphony and Arturo Toscanini, who famously remarked, “In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for.” Shaw continued to prepare choirs for Toscanini until March 1954, when they sang in Te Deum by Verdi and the prologue to Mefistofele by Boito. Shaw’s choirs participated in the NBC broadcast performances of three Verdi operas: Aida, Falstaff and A Masked Ball. They can be seen on the home videos of the telecasts of Aida and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Shaw himself took a bow at the end of the Beethoven telecast.
He went on to found the Robert Shaw Chorale in 1949, a group which produced numerous recordings on RCA Records up until his appointment in Atlanta. The Chorale visited 30 countries in tours sponsored by the U.S. State Department. Shaw was named music director of the San Diego Symphony in 1953 and served in that post for four years. Only after his San Diego tenure did he become an apprentice again, studying the art of conducting with George Szell and serving as his assistant at the Cleveland Orchestra for eleven seasons. He also took over the fledgling Cleveland Orchestra Chorus and fine-tuned it into one of the finest all-volunteer choral ensembles sponsored by an American symphony orchestra. From 1967-1988 he was music director and conductor of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. In 1970, he founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and worked to recreate the success he had had for Cleveland in preparing them for performances and recordings with their namesake symphony orchestra.
After stepping down from his Atlanta post in 1988, Shaw continued to conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra as its Music Director Emeritus and Conductor Laureate, was a regular guest conductor with other orchestras including Cleveland, and taught in a series of summer festivals and week-long Carnegie Hall workshops for choral conductors and singers.