Almost 50 years since he started conducting and ten years after his departure from the Washington Chorus, Robert Shafer is still waving his baton with the City Choir of Washington as the last of the city’s choral “old guard.”
In the past two years, Washington lost Norman Scribner, who headed the Choral Arts Society for over 45 years, and J. Reilly Lewis of the Cathedral Choral Society, who died in June. Other major symphonic choral directors, Paul Hill and Paul Callaway, passed away many years ago.
That leaves Shafer, now 70, who is leading City Choir into its 10th anniversary season this year. In two years, he will also also be celebrating his 50th anniversary as a conductor since starting with the Madison High School chorus in Vienna, Va., at age 22.
Shafer’s 35 years of work with the Washington Chorus was superb in every way, including over 400 concerts which he conducted or helped prepare for the Kennedy Center. He had six European tours and a Grammy win in 2000 for Britten’s War Requiem. After his departure as Music Director, Shafer accepted leadership of the newly formed City Choir of Washington, made up mainly of Washington Chorus singers who chose to organize a new chorus and asked him to lead it. Today, nearly half of the 120-member chorus is made up of those singers who joined with him in 2007.
“Bob had enough choral equity built up that the City Choir of Washington could burst onto the Washington choral scene and shine brightly,” says Debra Wynn, who has sung with him in both choruses. Starting with a small budget, City Choir debuted that fall with Handel’s Solomon performed at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, Va.
“With 100-or so singers, we can provide the intimate expression of a chamber choir that you could never provide in a chorus of 180 to 200,” says Shafer. “Yet, we can perform pieces that a smaller chorus could never do.”
The anniversary year calendar includes Brahms’ German Requiem, on Nov. 6, “The Holly and the Ivy: Music for Christmas” on Dec. 18, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem March 12, and a reprise of Handel’s Solomon on May 7. All are at National Presbyterian Church except the concert in March that will take place at St. Luke Catholic Church in McLean, Va.
Shafer figures the choir’s size and venues allow it to do more innovative works than could be done if there was a need to sell thousands of tickets in a big hall. Among recent works are Sir John Tavener’s Requiem Fragments, (a North American premiere), Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium and works by Arvo Pärt, and Tarik O’Regan, along with traditional masterworks.
As a serious director, Shafer admits that his rehearsals are not designed to only have fun. “When singers seek greatness in something they truly love, it can create joy far greater than having fun, say, at an amusement park,” he says.
Rather than repeatedly run pieces all the way through, Shafer will drill intensely on small sections until they are refined. “It is like taking a Swiss watch apart, polishing each piece and putting it together again,” he says.
Washington Chorus alumni explain why they joined him with City Choir: “He has the best ‘ear’ of any conductor I know,” says Elaine Wunderlich. “He has a commitment to precision and discipline in choral singing that I have not experienced elsewhere,” says Bill Gilcher. “Bob is a good teacher, and singers want to learn from him,” says Carol Edison.
The City Choir’s maestro actually started off as a pianist, earning his bachelor’s degree in piano performance and a master’s in music composition at Catholic University. But he began his career in choral conducting at Madison High School and never looked back. “You are working with people—not a machine called a piano. The human voice is the most direct way of artistic and musical expression, and you are not looking at black and white keys all day,” he says. “On the other hand, the ivory keys don’t talk back to you.”
For nine summers, Shafer trained in France with Nadia Boulanger, who taught some of the 20th century’s greatest conductors and composers. In 1971, he took the reins of the Oratorio Society of Montgomery County, which later became the Washington Chorus. He was also music director of St. Matthew’s Cathedral for three years and the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for six years. He was professor of music at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., from 1983 until his retirement from that post last spring. His City Choir has performed at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, the Washington National Cathedral, the Music Center at Strathmore and other well-known venues.
Rather than scale back with City Choir, Shafer is going full throttle. “I am working at the highest level I have ever been able to do in my concerts,” he says. Shafer has established a three-year plan for City Choir to include such works as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Monteverdi’s Vespers, the Handel opera Acis and Galatea and a possible tour in the United Kingdom.
And he feels the chorus has found its niche as a medium-sized ensemble mixing experimental works with those of the masters. “If you want to do more interesting repertoire like we do, you had better not be trying to sell 2,000 tickets to it.”
Looking back on his 48 years as a conductor in Washington, Shafer reflected, “I am so grateful for every opportunity that I have had in symphonic and chamber choral music, every student I have taught, and every note of church music that I have played and conducted. Even at a couple of unsure crossroads along the way, God has always led me to something better. I couldn’t be happier.”