Stafford: Springfield North grad produces documentary on well-known conductor

Under extraordinary circumstances, while exploring a brilliant composition, an inspired conductor can marshal the collective power of instruments and voices in a way that not only expresses the feeling of a moment in history but also touches the human spirit in a way that moves us to tears.

Kiki Follrath Wilson was a participant and a witness to such a performance in the ghost town East Berlin had become by 1988, a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now, 30 years later, the 1970 graduate of Springfield North High School has produced a documentary about the extraordinary conductor who led her and others to the musical Promised Land.

Although a date has not been selected, “Robert Shaw: Man of Many Voices” will be aired as part of the prestigious PBS American Masters series late in the 2019 season.

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The first-time producer said she spearheaded the effort to raise the $1 million needed to make the film – along with assembling the staff to do so — because 20 years after she returned from the performance of “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony” no one else had moved to properly honor the brilliant, troubled and inspiring man that was Shaw.

When she first said to herself in 1988 that someone should do a documentary about him, “It never occurred to me that it was going to fall into my lap.”

Then years ago, with many of Shaw’s contemporaries dying, Wilson felt compelled to act, a feeling that had its roots in the rich musical community Springfield was in her childhood.

She recalls watching proudly as her grandfather, Philo Botsford, lead the Springfield High School Marching Band up the hill on Fountain Avenue to McCreight Avenue during the Memorial Day Parade, then perform for the crowd. She also proudly played the piccolo part at the conclusion of “The Stars and Stripes Forever” when he retired in 1968.

Wilson said she sang in a series of outstanding choirs at Covenant Presbyterian Church; went with Grover Baber’s SHS choir to state competition after state competition; enjoyed being part of Music Stage with Bob Sedoris; and appreciated the grand orchestral tradition John Smarelli fostered in the Springfield City Schools.

Her musical interests propelled her to an undergraduate degree from Washington University in St. Louis, then a master’s degree in conducting from Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. She taught in her early years in Chicago and enjoyed its “great musical scene” before meeting her husband when both were in China.

“I would have followed him to Timbuktu,” she said, but when she asked him why she should leave Chicago for Atlanta, he said, “Because we have Robert Shaw.”

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Outside the norm

Shaw, a minister’s son with little formal musical training, made his first national splash at age 22 on NBC Radio in the late 1930s directing a glee club for Pennsylvania band leader Fred Waring, who had discovered him. Shaw did 500 live shows a year and his 15-minute daily program had the largest radio audience ever.

With America’s entry into World War II, Shaw was a conscientious objector, which set him outside the norm. Similarly, his belief in equality caused him to leave the church led by New York pastor Norman Vincent Peale when Peale said he wanted no Jews, blacks or Catholics in Shaw’s 200-member College Chorale. As one Shaw observer says in the documentary: “He really believed in a democracy of the arts.”

Just as that stance would lead to a long-running battle against racism as his mixed choirs toured the South over the years, Shaw found himself waging an uphill battle for respect as he tried to transition to the orchestral stage from the popular stage.

Shaw’s position was strengthened when Arturo Toscanini, world-renowned conductor and director of the NBC Orchestra, insisted that Shaw conduct the chorus for that orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth and said of him, “finally, I have found the maestro I have been looking for.”

In the late 1950s, the George Szell, conductor of the world class Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, hired Shaw as his assistant, and Shaw’s experience grew. After a June 3, 1962, plane crash in Paris killed many who had formed the core of Atlanta’s arts community, those who wanted to transform Atlanta into a first-class American city recruited Shaw to direct an orchestra for which they were building a new symphony hall. He did so, in the early years rehearsing the orchestra in the Atlanta Braves locker room.

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The orchestra and its chorus were well-established by the time Wilson joined the chorus in 1981 as a second alto snugged up to the tenors. She also led its rehearsals for a time when Shaw was out of town.

Famous for driving himself to study every note and measure each time he prepared a piece for performance, Shaw was persistently insistent in teaching music to his chorus.

Wilson said he began with timing. “Rhythm for him was like the master. If you sang a one one-hundredth of an eighth note before or after it was intended, it was wrong.” Once the timing was in place – and before the note was added – came the text. “If anyone who was listening did not understand what the composer intended, then you weren’t doing your job. Some of that was easy; most of it was hard.”

Finally, the notes were added, and when all had become second nature, was hammered into the shape of a musical whole.

“Shaw’s technique was the same whether he was delivering ‘Amazing Grace’ or the ‘Brahms Requiem,’” Wilson said. And his purpose was always to perform the music “as the composer had intended,” she added. To that end, every individual in the chorus had to abandon a sense of individual expression to stay within what Shaw called “the sleeve of the music” – all had to focus on that single purpose.

A true teacher

Although he could be “dictatorially demanding,” she said, he also was a true teacher, who wrote weekly letters to his musicians about the nuances of the music they were learning. As much as he discussed the pieces musically, he also would bring his knowledge of art, philosophy and literature to bear in exploring the nuances that transform notes from noise into music.

“He was formidable,” said Wilson, who like all other members of the chorus was unpaid, “and yet people adored him for the depth of experience he brought to them.”

As the documentary spells out, Shaw’s family life was a casualty not only to his obsession with music but to his alcoholism, philandering, insecurity and other aspects of his personality. As one person expresses it in the documentary, “with all genius, there is a monster.”

Wilson began her effort to express all that in a film after retiring a decades-long IT career with Delta Airlines and after her beloved husband passed away. His social connections introduced her to Atlanta area shakers-and-movers Jimmy Carter and Andrew Young, as well as those of the older generation “who could make calls and raise money.” She hired Atlanta-based documentarian Amy Linton to amass the material and fundraiser Amelia Nickerson to run the campaign. Actor David Hyde Pierce, whom many know as Niles from the television show “Frazier,” agreed to narrate the film, and Wilson’s entire team functioned like a well-directed chorus. “Everybody took their piece of it and they were passionate about it, too.”

The passion spilled out most notable in arguments that led to a fourth script all could agree on for the piece.

Through the lengthy and monumental project, “What astonished me,” Wilson said, “is that nobody ever questioned that I could do it.” Then once it was done, the miraculous happened. A documentary she produced to “preserve his legacy” and envisioned being shown to collegiate musicians was noticed. It started with three Southeast Emmy Awards, then garnered a variety of film festival honors, including the Gold Award of the Los Angeles Independent Film Review in 2017.

All were capped by something that “never occurred to us” — or would occur to any first-time producer from an unknown production company: Acceptance for the “American Masters” series.

The reaction to the show has been “incredible,” she said. “People, some who have never ever heard of Shaw before, walk out in tears” – the surest sign a human heart has been touched.

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