December 2, 2019  (Web Review)

Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices

(2019) 70 min. DVD: $24.99 ($54.99 w/PPR). PBS Video ( ISBN: 978-1-5317-1051-4.

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

In the last half of the 20th century, American choral director Robert Shaw was the foremost advocate for the musical importance of the human voice, making countless appearances at concerts, as well as on radio and TV. Filmmakers Pamela Roberts and Peter Miller’s PBS-aired American Masters documentary describes the unlikely career of a self-taught conductor who was the son of an evangelist Christian minister and made music his passion and religion. Shaw was leading a glee club at a California college when he was discovered in 1938 by band leader Fred Waring, who wanted to form a men’s chorus for his group. Shaw quickly mastered the format of radio, believing in “doing good music well” and in reaching a national or international audience. When America entered World War II, Shaw registered as a pacifist conscientious objector. Enjoying the company of Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, the charismatic Shaw was something of a “boy wonder,” winning fame for his programs of patriotic music, spirituals, and Christmas themes. The death of his brother in the war made him a more serious man and musician, and he eventually left his profitable position to work under conductor Arturo Toscanini. Having married young, Shaw was rarely at home, and his marriage suffered, further weakened by his womanizing and increasing alcoholism. Co-workers describe his emotional, intuitive approach to conducting, and his mercurial personality, which could be both generous and abusive. Shaw’s strong sense of social justice led to integrated trips (Shaw insisted on employing black talent) through the segregated south, and eventually a position as conductor of the Atlanta Symphony orchestra for a stormy but productive tenure. Shaw took seriously his role as mentor and teacher, and he went on to enjoy a happy second marriage and numerous honors before he died in 1999. Offering a solid profile of a man whose legacy lives on in many recordings, extras include bonus interview footage. Recommended. Aud: C, P. (S. Rees)