Performing Arts: The Man Behind the Baton

by patrickmccoy

Robert Shafer talks world premieres, royal occasions and the D.C. choral scene.

By Patrick D. McCoy

Conductor Robert Shafer will conduct the The City Choir of Washington at Washington National Cathedral on Sunday. (Photo courtesy of The City Choir of Washington)

Washington Life: Tell us how your involvement with the  premiere of  choral compositions by Sir John Tavener came about.
Robert Shafer: Well, that’s interesting! Two years ago, in the spring, we did a performance of Bach’s “Mass in B minor” and someone came backstage that I recognized. I probably had not seen him in about 35 years and it was a man named Jeff Gedmin, who is the CEO of the Legatum Institute in London. It turns out that I actually taught him in my very first job as a choral conductor in Washington back in 1968 at Madison High School in nearby Vienna, VA. We had done many exciting things, including the concert in 1975 honoring the bicentennial of the United States with Aaron Copland conducting. Gedmin was a part of that and it sort of changed his life. He said that he had been following my career over the last 35 years and that he started a new job in London at the Legatum Institute. He wanted to expand the vision of the institute, which is basically a ‘think tank’ for public policy focused on economic recovery around the world.  So he wanted to expand into the arts, education and other sorts of parallel fields to help people enhance the quality of their lives. “What could we do to tie in our two groups?”  he asked. I suggested maybe comissioning a brand new work to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee Anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II, the longest living monarch on earth. The relationship between Great Britain and the United Stated has been very important over the last 60 years [with] all the things that we have shared over the years, especially in the arts. So, we went right to the top.  I asked Sir John Tavener if he would write a work for us and he said yes. The Legatum Institute paid for the commission, and  the rest is history. The world premieres of four pieces will be this Sunday: one major work with three movements and “Tolstoy’s Creed.”

WL: Talk to us a bit about the behind-the-scenes preparation both here and abroad.
RS: I have been over to London about three times in the last 18 months. The first time was just to explore the possibilities. Then I returned a year ago this past January. We planned the work and he suggested the text – the poems of George Herbert. Then I was there two weeks ago to answer final questions and to give a presentation to the Legatum Institute about all the new music  so that we could get the word out.  A lot of the members of the institute are coming from London.

WL: What makes the Washington National Cathedral the ideal space for such a concert?
RS:  It is perfect space for this particular premiere because Tavener is probably one of the most spiritual composers I know. I am not saying he’s religious. He’s 69 now and as he gets older he’s less and less specifically religious. He certainly is very spiritual. A lot of his works throughout his life have looked on questions of time and eternity. He is very drawn to Eastern religions and traditions. For instance, a lot of his music is written with spatial dimenions in mind. When I told him that the concert was originally going to be at The Kennedy Center he was pleased and all that, but when I told him that it had been moved to the cathedral, he was thrilled!  That was the impetus for him to write an additional new work for us, the “Tolstoy’s Creed,” because of the magnificent pipe organ and spaciousness. Just like Gabrieli and Monteverdi in the 16th century wrote for those balconies in Saint Mark’s in Venice, he has made the cathedral itself a part of the composition. The first Herbert poem is an echo in which the first, third, fifth and seventh line is answered with a rhyming echo on the second, fourth and sixth lines. The choir and orchestra is up front in the traditional place in the crossing. Then there is an echo choir in the balcony so there is this dialogue back and forth between the two performing groups. You can’t capture that on a recording but you certainly can have an incredible experience listening in the nave to this dialogue back and forth. That’s an example of how the cathedral becomes an instrument in the performance, as does the reverberation. It is all proving to be very exciting!

WL:  How are your students at Shenandoah Conservatory impacted by participating in an experience such as this?
RS:  Well I feel that all conductors are teachers, whether they work in a school, church or community choir. We are always teaching and trying to enhance the quality of the lives of those that we are so blessed to work with. I had the great fortune of studying quite a while with Nadia Boulanger in France at the end of my education. Before she died I was with her every summer. She used to say that if there was a choice between working with, for example, college students and high school students, work with the youngest, because the younger they are, the more potent the experience will become throughout their lives. So, I have always enjoyed working with young people and included [them] in many of the things that I did when I was with The Washington Chorus. For the Grammy award-winning recording of the Britten “War Requiem,” The Washington Chorus and the Shenandoah Conservatory Choir joined forces. I have been told by many students and  alumni that they may not remember a lot about their experience, but can recall a time singing such a performance such as the Berlioz or Britten “War Requiem.” I know that it is a very important experience and I am honored to be able to offer it to them.

WL: The local music community has watched The City Choir of Washington grow by leaps and bounds. What are your thoughts on the group’s trajectory?
RS:  I am proud and gratified to see how far they have come. This is just our sixth season so we have enjoyed it very much. I really feel like conductors can last a long time as long as their bodies hold out. Mine has, knock on wood. I am feeling great. The more experience you bring to what you do, the better you are. I used to be the music director at both the National Shrine and Saint Matthew’s Cathedral, so working in those huge churches gives me an experience that helps me deal with different aspects, such as the acoustics of the cathedral in our upcoming concert. The singers enjoy working with me and so we continue to work together. They actually formed the choir themselves and asked me to be their first director. It has been a real mutual and joyful experience.

WL: What do you think about your successor Julian Wachner and his current work with The Washington Chorus?
RS: I think he is a superb musician! He is so versatile as a composer, conductor and church musician. We just had lunch about two months ago prior to his performance of Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.” He is very busy – I don’t know how he does it. I have the highest regard for him.

WL: What makes Sunday’s concert special?
RS: The special thing about this concert, in addition to the premieres, is the fact that it recreates the great, exciting music of the first coronation of 1953. Most of that celebratory music was also performed at the recent royal wedding. It’s just going to be so much fun and enjoyable. A lot of the big orchestra and choir pieces will be featured such as Parry’s “I Was Glad,” “Jerusalem,” my arrangement of “God Save the Queen” and  Handel’s “Zadok the Priest,” which was performed at all of the coronations. To show the relationship between the two countries, we will also perform the “Chichester Psalms” by Leonard Bernstein, which was commissioned by Chichester Cathedral in England. It’s not just a “new music” concert

Diamond Jubilee: A Coronation Anniversary Concert
Sunday, April 21
4 p.m.
Washington National Cathedral
Tickets ($21 to $80) available here

Recently named among the Forty Under 40 for his contributions to arts and humanities, Patrick D. McCoy received a B.M. in vocal performance from Virginia State University and a M.M. in church music from the Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va.  He has contributed arts and culture pieces to CBS Washington, The Afro-American Newspaper and the newly published book, “In Spite of the Drawbacks” (Association of Black Women Historians), which includes his chapter on legendary soprano Leontyne Price.  McCoy  has interviewed some of the most acclaimed artists of our  time, including Renée FlemingDenyce Graves, Norman Scribner, Julian Wachner, Christine Brewer and Lawrence  Brownlee.   Listen to these interviews and others  at Blog Talk Radio. McCoy may be reached via email at and on Twitter @PatrickDMcCoy.



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