In 1994, at the 65th Annual Academy Awards presentation, upon receiving the Oscar for the Best Song, “Streets of Philadelphia,” Bruce Springsteen delivered the finest acceptance speech that event has ever experienced: ‘You do your best work, and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience and some of the pieces of it spill over into the real world, and into peoples everyday lives; that it takes the edge off of fear, and allows us to recognize each other through the veil of our differences.’
I don’t know if Springsteen ever met Robert Shaw but in those 56 words he summarized the life of that brilliant artist and human being shown so eloquently and beautifully in the 71 minute film “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices” screening twice next week at the Newport Beach Film Festival, taking place at various venues around that city and at the Segerstrom Center in Costa Mesa.
A self taught master, Shaw studied religion at Pomona College with an eye towards following his father’s footsteps into the ministry. After his graduation in 1938 the hardships of Great Depression and his father’s debilitating illness forced Shaw to rethink his plans and accept an offer he had previously rejected (to come to New York and create a chorus at NBC Radio Studios) from nationally famous bandleader and radio personality (and owner of the company that produced the kitchen implement later memorialized in Warren Zevon’s ‘Poor, Poor Pitiful Me’!) Fred Waring. In that setting Shaw’s untutored brilliance quickly propelled him into the national spotlight and his vocal ensemble would perform 500 live shows in a year and see him deliver the largest audience for a radio program in that medium’s history.
For Shaw, that was only the beginning. With a social circle that included Orson Wells, Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Arturo Toscanini and Dylan Thomas (Shaw was a regular at New York’s famous White Horse Tavern and was drinking with Thomas the week the poet died) Shaw became as respected for his talent and art as any of that crowd. He outlived them all, and arguably touched more lives in live performance than any of them.
After transitioning under the guidance of Arturo Toscanini and George Szell from being a purely choral conductor to leading full orchestras, Shaw was asked to lead the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, which he built into one of the world’s great performing ensembles. Shaw conducted the Atlanta Symphony at the great concert halls around the United States and around the world. The importance of art as a tool for building bridges is told wonderfully in vignettes about performing with an integrated chorus in the segregated south, playing Bach’s Mass in Bm in Leningrad during the Cuban Missile Crisis and bringing an American orchestra to offer up Beethoven’s 9th Symphony to a teary eyed audience in East Berlin. It was under Shaw’s direction in 1978 that the ASO presented the first digitally recorded classical performance – Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite.
In Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices we are taken on a journey not only into the life of one of the greatest artists of his or any age, we are given an eloquent and simple understanding of the meaning and purpose of art: ‘Art binds people together at their own eventual best, their own eventual goodness . . . (and) builds a tolerance for other human beings that is essential to a civilization.’ Sound familiar?
With a magical pacing that not only keeps the story compelling, but does so while maintaining an exquisite resonance with the forms in which Shaw did his finest work, ‘Robert Shaw’ delivers a heartfelt message about art in service to, and as an expression of, the very best of what humanity is capable. In Shaw’s time, a time of economic hardship, war, segregation and the divisiveness those forces can bring to human relationships (sound familiar?) he saw the performance of the world’s greatest classical pieces as providing his audiences with ‘ . . . a consanguinity. As soon as we find one another (in making or experiencing art) we also then invite the miracle.’
In the very best tradition of documentary filmmaking, Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices, not only illuminates an important human being and his era, it illuminates what is important today and tomorrow and forever – if we are fortunate enough to continue the human experiment. Whether you are an artist working in any media — or if you simply love art – I’m betting you will find this film a meaningful, inspiring and life affirming work.
Executive Producer: Kiki Wilson
Narrator: David Hyde Pierce
Directed by: Pamela Roberts and Peter Miller
Cinematographer: Michael Lines
Edited by: Amy Linton
Original Scoring: Fred Story
Robert Shaw; Man of Many Voices’ will screen on Tuesday April 25 and Thursday April 27. For information on times and venues: https://www.newportbeachfilmfest.com