Robert Shafer, award-winning conductor, composer, and educator has been a pillar of the Washington,
D.C. choral scene for over fifty years and is recognized as one of America’s major choral directors.
Beginning with his career as a teacher who attracted national attention for his first-rate Madrigal Singers, Shafer served as music director of The Washington Chorus for over thirty-five years, music director of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, and he is the founding artistic director of the City Choir of Washington, among many other accomplishments.
Earlier this year, Shafer joined The Interview Series, a joint choral initiative between Choralis, the National Philharmonic Chorale (NPC), and Cantate Chamber Singers, for a Q&A interview. Below are highlights where Shafer discusses how the music scene has evolved in Washington, winning a GRAMMY, which score he would take with him to a desert island, and more!
Shafer has further supported Choralis and made a guest appearance at a Choralis rehearsal. “You know, we all have to stick together in this community,” said Shafer. “No one has done more for the musical community of Virginia and all of the DC area than Gretchen Kuhrmann. I always congratulate you [Kuhrmann] and thank you from me and all of my colleagues for all the leadership [you initiate] through the city.”
Interview Q&A with Bob Shafer
Q: How has the Washington choral community changed in your years on the scene?
Shafer: It’s changed a great deal. I started working here as a professional choral director in 1968 at James Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. I had a really fine choir and choral program there that I inherited. I started to premiere a lot of local Washington composers’ music. At that time in Washington, there were really only two choirs that were rather large and principal choirs. Basically, you had The Cathedral Choral Society and the Howard University choir. Of course, there were church choirs and there were some small choirs. What really changed things was the coming of the Kennedy Center, which opened in 1971. Of course, Washington Opera moved there, and the National Symphony [National Symphony Orchestra] moved there. Norman Scribner was on the ground floor at the opening of the Kennedy Center and he prepared the Bernstein Mass, which they commissioned him to write. Norman actually started in the mid-60s in Washington. He had come over from Peabody where he was trained and then he was in the army. He was the organist choir master at St. Alban’s Church. The National Symphony was looking for a Messiah chorus, so they called Norman [and asked him to put together] some church choirs and form a Messiah chorus. The long and short of it, is he did. The singers got to know each other and decided after all the Messiahs they wanted to stick together and that created The Choral Arts Society.
After the Kennedy Center opened, the bigger choirs—The Choral Arts Society and the Oratorio Society of Washington—we began performing our seasons there in the early to mid-70s. We were the only large symphonic choruses doing our seasons there. And then we would also appear as guests of the National Symphony in many, many engagements. I remember in one year I had 21 choral preparations for the National Symphony, including seven Carmina Buranas. A lot of smaller choruses started then to be more active and be created. And it just sort of began to explode really, with a lot more different kinds of choruses. The next principal conductor with a large choir that performed at the Kennedy Center was Paul Hill, who had the Paul Hill Chorale. It was semi-professional, they had a core of about 25 to 30 paid people and then they had about 70 or 80 volunteers. They didn’t do much with the National Symphony, but they did their own concerts.
Q: Were there any guest conductors with the National Symphony who were guiding lights for you?
Shafer: They were all wonderful, but there were two who stood out, not so much because they were two superlative musicians, but it was because of their kindness and diplomatic way of dealing with the orchestra and with the chorus. And just being superb human beings.
The first was Sir Neville Marriner. He came in and right away from the beginning, he was such a gentleman and treated the chorus so kindly. We were not doing an easy piece; we were doing A Child of Our Time by Sir Michael Tippett. All the rehearsals were such a pleasure. Of course, he knew the piece and knew Sir Michael Tippett well. Later on, I was on tour in Germany with the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir and he was then the music director at the Stuttgart Philharmonic. I called him and he just stopped everything and invited me to the concerts, rehearsals, the recording sessions, and told me to bring some of my conducting students. It just shows you how kind he was.
The other one was Ton Koopman. He’s a Baroque specialist. We did an absolutely stunning Messiah with him and a small contingent of National Symphony on modern instruments. He was another great gentleman and knew how to get what he wanted in an elegant and in a quiet way. He treated the chorus like human beings that were important—that they were just as important as the orchestra—and had such a way of charming them like Sir Neville Marriner.
Q: You have a special history with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem—your recording won a GRAMMY for Best Choral Performance! What was the story behind that and how did that affect you and the choir thereafter?
Shafer: Well, it’s an amazing story. I first heard the War Requiem the spring of my freshman year of college. I went to The Catholic University here in Washington. Paul Callaway and the Cathedral Choral Society were doing it. It was the spring of 1964. The piece had only been written a couple years before. I was so, so moved by it. It was one of those pieces I always dreamed of doing. I prepared it for Julius Rudel for a performance in September of 1972. It was the second season of the Kennedy Center being open. Julius Rudel was music director at the Kennedy Center and also artistic director of the New York City Opera. He was a great opera conductor. But I always [wanted to do it] myself.
My dad was a World War II veteran. He fought in Pacific in the jungles of New Guinea, and truly, I think that generation was the “great generation” as they’ve been called. We were approaching the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II in 1995. So, I said to my board, “you know, we should do the War Requiem to celebrate that anniversary.” It was a spring date—I remember April 14 was available at the Kennedy Center. And that was right around the time the actual papers were signed to end the war. That was the season I had to do seven Carmina Buranas and I could only rehearse War Requiem in January for three Mondays. We had three weeks after the last Carmina Burnana before the War Requiem performance. So not an ideal thing. Some of the singers had done it before, but not many. I knew I could only teach the basics and not go through the entire work.
NPR decided to record and broadcast it nationally. They have superb recording equipment. This is a very difficult piece not only to perform, but to record because it’s not just for the orchestra and a big choir. You have a full sitting orchestra in front of the main chorus of 150 people and on another side, there is a chamber orchestra of 13 players. We made this recording. It wasn’t on any label; it was just a private recording like many choirs make of themselves. It got registered automatically with the Recording Academy, the official GRAMMY organization. [A piece] is considered for a GRAMMY—it doesn’t mean it’s going to get nominated or win—if it fits under the rules and is automatically sent to Los Angeles and put in a pot for consideration. The nominations for the GRAMMY came out in the year 2000 because it had taken years for this to transpire since the recording in 1995. They announced the nominations—we were one of the five nominees. I just about fainted; I was so honored to be nominated. We were up against famous maestros, orchestras, world-class soloists, choirs, and professional singers. I wasn’t even going to go because we had a big concert coming up and I didn’t want to miss a Monday night rehearsal, as the GRAMMYs are on a Sunday. But finally, about a week before, the question came up, “but what if we’ve won Bob, you must go.” I just laughed. But I went. I finally got a plane ticket that made nine stops from Washington to Los Angeles. They never let us get off the plane for the entire time. [At the GRAMMY Awards] they read the nominees, which groups did each piece, and opened the envelope. I was so shocked when I heard “Britten War Requiem.” There was this eruption of yelling from all our friends from Washington.
So that is the GRAMMY story and War Requiem story. It was extraordinary. I still don’t know how it happened, but it is certainly a piece very close to my heart. [The piece was part of my] first experience in Washington with a Washington conductor, Paul Callaway, conducing the Cathedral Choral Society— that’s how I first heard it and first came to love it. I keep coming back to this miracle of the choral music in Washington, D.C. and us being the leaders in our industry.
Q: What score would you take to a desert island and why?
Shafer: That’s a tough one. When people ask what’s your favorite piece, I say the one I’m doing right now. Because I love so many of them. There’s a piece that’s very special to me—the Monteverdi 1610 Marian Vespers. It’s such an important piece in the history of music. It was really the bridge from the Renaissance to the Baroque. Monteverdi was such a genius. There’s something about the work that is very challenging to do. It was really the first oratorio or large work for chorus and orchestra in the history of music. He wrote it to show everything he could do as a composer because he was trying to get the job at St. Peter’s in Rome. It’s a piece that has everything in it—it has some of the most exquisite writing for solo voices, in all the ravishing concertos for single voice, two voices, three voices. And then it has very exciting double choruses and triple choruses. The other thing that’s exciting about it is that you can sort of do it in many different ways because the score was written in such a way that Monteverdi did not indicate what instruments played where. Often times the instruments doubled the vocal parts, and sometimes they didn’t, but he didn’t tell us where they were supposed to play and when they were not supposed to play. In Sonata sopra Sancta Maria, he writes a completely instrumental work that is quite historic in that it was the first piece in the history of music composed for just orchestra. When you finish the entire work, you know that you have experienced an artistic masterpiece that has a spiritual reality that unites the performers and audience in a profound way.
All music I think has a spiritual component. That’s what I missed more than anything this past year [during COVID-19]. An audience gets energy from the live performance of the music and then they give that energy back so that the players get more energy [which continues back-and-forth]. None of that is possible in any kind of virtual setup. It’s off the table. I think there’s something very important about performing, listening, and experiencing together. I think maybe the soul of a work doesn’t manifest itself without that kind of connection.
Q: What choral works do you think should be done once we’re released from quarantine?
Shafer: The question that needs to be asked before that is “what will the nature of choruses be when this is over?” I don’t know. We’ve been away so long and there are so many unknowns. We don’t know if the churches will let us come in and rehearse or give concerts there. Or the Kennedy Center or any place. Who will come back to our choruses? Will some people be afraid to come back? Will some people refuse to get vaccinated? Here’s a question someone asked me—are you going to require everybody in your chorus to be vaccinated or they can’t be in the chorus? That’s a big question to ask, but you have to ask it. I’m afraid it may take as long as two years to get back to what we thought was normal.
What piece should be done—I think it should be an explosion of love, love of music. The piece that brings you the most sense of grace and divinity. I do predict that probably the choruses are not going to be as big, certainly at the beginning because some people that were singing before may have retired from singing or be afraid to sing. I predict our performance venues are going to be small. You can’t get 2,000 people in the National Shrine at the Immaculate Conception at Washington National Cathedral and have these huge choruses and orchestras. We’ll have to wait until we can do a Berlioz Requiem or a Mahler Symphony No. 8 or something like that. And we don’t need to do those. There’s so much marvelous music that doesn’t get done much, [for example] all those tiny, charming Mozart masses. There’s plenty of repertoire for smaller choirs and smaller orchestras, or choirs alone or choirs and organ. I believe we will survive this, and we will get concerts again and we will rehearse, and we will come through this. I have faith that we will.