When Robert Shaw became music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in 1967, he had no formal training as a conductor. Yet during his 21-year tenure there, Shaw integrated the orchestra, bolstered the choral program, and pushed for contemporary music. Similarly Kiki Wilson had no filmmaking experience when she decided to make a documentary, Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices, but as a singer who worked for him for 18 years, she knew his legacy firsthand.
The documentary has been in the works for almost as long. Wilson was touring Europe with Shaw in 1988, his final year at ASO, when she realized his story had universal appeal. The 200-person chorus and 100-person orchestra was the largest performing arts group to be in Europe at the time, selling out concerts throughout the continent. Yet one show in East Berlin stood out. “The emotion of the people [there] who were about to become free, hearing Beethoven’s Ninth by an American chorus, was so strong,” Wilson says. “I came home from that tour and said, ‘This man touches people’s lives. We need to make a documentary.'”
Wilson waited until her own retirement to begin producing the documentary. “We started in 2009, what a horrible year, but Atlanta has been incredibly supportive financially,” she says. As she secured funds and hired Pamela Roberts and Peter Miller to direct, she also began conducting interviews with some of Shaw’s oldest friends, from his personal physician David Lowlance to Jimmy Carter, who appointed Shaw to the National Council on the Arts when he was president. Wilson and her team filmed 30 interviews total, flying subjects in or taking advantage of musicians on tour here, like Yo-Yo Ma, who closes the film.
The result is a 71-minute documentary of interviews and live footage narrated by David Hyde Pierce that follows Shaw’s life chronologically. The film premieres on Sunday, April 24, at Symphony Hall, with plans to air on GPB eventually, but Wilson hopes it will be in every college music department across the country. “There are lessons here that transcend across our culture: his amazing work ethic, his penchant for taking risks,” Wilson says. “For young people, if he could do it, maybe they could do it, too.”