To Work With a Master

Master and apprentice. One has a lifetime of knowledge, skill, and the hard-earned perfection of his art. The other has a boundless desire to learn as much as possible of the master's wisdom.

Robert Shaw and Kristofer Johnson. Shaw is one of the nation's most renowned choral conductors. Johnson, from Meridian, Mississippi, is a junior voice major in the Conservatory who aspires to a career in choral conducting.

Master and apprentice worked together when Robert Shaw, now music director emeritus and conductor laureate of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, was on campus in early November to lead "A Tribute to Robert Fountain," a four-day event that culminated in a concert of works by Stravinsky, Mozart, Haydn, and Wagner. It was an experience that Johnson won't soon forget.

"Rehearsals were insane," said Johnson, the tenor section leader of the Oberlin College Choir. "They were intense, exciting, and wonderful. I can't say enough about what a brilliant musician he is." Johnson studies vocal performance with Gerald Crawford and conducting with Edward Maclary.

Shaw directed members of the Oberlin College Choir, the Musical Union, and the Oberlin Orchestra, as well as a chorus of 150 alumni who returned to campus to honor the memory of Robert Fountain. Proceeds from the ticket revenue benefited the Robert Fountain Memorial Merit Scholarship in Choral Music.

It was under the direction of Robert Fountain--a faculty member at the Conservatory from 1948 to 1971--that Oberlin's choral program took its place among the foremost in the nation, touring throughout the United States and abroad. Fountain died in his Oberlin home in May 1996 after a long illness.

In preparation for the tribute, students had five rehearsals with Shaw, each of which lasted three hours, though few were keeping track of time.

"Shaw's groups sing and perform with such an extremely careful and clinical perfection in terms of rhythm and pitch and intonation and tuning," Johnson said, "but for all the exactitude of his rehearsals, they are always so musical and so connected to what is happening in the piece that it's never an exercise--it's always music-making, and that made three hours go by in an absolute flash."

Shaw developed his expertise in a distinguished career that began in New York, where he prepared choruses for Arturo Toscanini, Bruno Walter, and other conductors. The founder of the Robert Shaw Chorale and Orchestra, he was also associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra for 10 years and music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra for 21 years. His numerous honors include 13 Grammy Awards, four ASCAP awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the George Peabody Medal for outstanding contributions to music in America, the Kennedy Center Honors for his lifetime of achievement in the arts, and the National Medal of Arts.

It was not these achievements, however, that most inspired Johnson. Rather it was Shaw's talent in choral direction that left a lasting impression.

"Shaw has an ability to make you want to do exactly as he's asking, and it's never demanding," Johnson said. "It's the most unified ensemble effort I've ever been part of."

Johnson filled his score with observations of Shaw's directing. "He's always pushing you to fulfill your personal responsibilities in the group. You can never let just your brain work or just your heart work. It's constantly a union internally of intellect and emotion. Shaw's ability to produce this is what fascinates me the most. This is what I want to do."

Johnson gave a vivid example of Shaw's ability to inspire singers to unite head and heart. "When he spoke of a certain crescendo that we were making technically and clinically properly, he said, 'It's not a crescendo like that. It's a crescendo of sunrise.' And suddenly it was different. If it was read on meters, it would be the same, but there was an intent behind the singing that changed everything."

--Ben Jones '96 and Anne C. Paine

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