Robert Shaw, widely viewed as the dean of American choral conductors, died in 1999 at the age of 82. The enterprising Twin Cities choral ensemble known as the Singers devoted the final program of its 12th season — Saturday night at Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church in St. Paul — to Shaw, his music and his remarkable, path-finding career just a few weeks after the conductor’s 100th birthday, April 30.
Though he was music director of the Atlanta Symphony for 21 years and a feisty champion of new music, Shaw was most respected for his work with choruses. He once said his goal with his 40-voice Robert Shaw Chorale, formed in 1948, was to produce a chorus of professionals who sang with the enthusiasm of amateurs.
A tireless educator, arranger and publisher — and by many accounts, a singularly complicated man given to periods of restless self-doubt — Shaw toured the world with his orchestras and choruses and made hundreds of recordings. To him, music was more than a luxury or an entertainment. As a form of communication, it was a spiritual and moral force.
He lived up to his ideals. In the early 1940s, having formed his first group, the Collegiate Chorale, Shaw was asked by the deacons of the church in New York City where the chorus performed to trim its membership of Roman Catholics, Jews and blacks. Shaw responded by packing the whole group off to more tolerant quarters.
Putting together Saturday’s program was no small task, given Shaw’s vast repertoire. Even so, Matthew Culloton, the Singers’ artistic director, made wise and interesting choices. He began the evening with a brief set of Renaissance madrigals, then moved on to French songs by Debussy and Hindemith. The centerpiece of the second half was portions of Rachmaninoff’s “Vespers,” the All-Night Vigil of the Russian Orthodox Church.
Between these, Culloton put folk song arrangements and spirituals, pieces of special charm and vitality that Shaw arranged, some in collaboration with his former student Alice Parker. The set included composer Gail Kubik’s bright arrangement of the spiritual “Soon One Mornin.’ ” Shaw’s recordings of these pieces were among his most popular.
The 43-voice Singers, spun off from the revered Dale Warland Singers when that group disbanded in 2004, performed this varied and challenging repertoire with impressive polish and precision. Some words were swallowed up in the high-ceiling space at Nativity, but the musical sound was clear and, for the most part, unfailingly warm and resonant.
The aura of reverie, of dreamy landscape, came through beautifully with immaculate intonation and wide dynamic range in the Debussy set — three songs on texts by the 15th-century poet Charles of Orleans. The four numbers from “Vespers” were given expansive readings with vivid tone colors and a feeling of sheer ecstasy in the final number. (The Singers will perform the entire “Vespers” June 15 at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.)
One imagines that Shaw, a demanding listener, would have approved of the performance as the audience did.
Michael Anthony is a Twin Cities classical music critic.