ASO Choral Director Norman Mackenzie

Leading the Robert Shaw Legacy into a New Era

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Photo contributed by ASO

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Photo contributed by ASO

It’s a Sunday afternoon in February. The white plaster vault of Carnegie Hall is echoing to cheers and applause, and Norman Mackenzie walks out on stage. His choristers, culled from the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus as well as competition winners from various high schools, turn as one, to beam at him.

The applause is led by ASO music director Robert Spano who has just conducted the Requiem by Hector Berlioz, a gigantic choral composition that offers considerable challenges to conductor, soloists and choristers alike. Written in 1837, the Requiem requires multiple choral sections, four offstage brass bands, a tenor (preferably above the stage) and four kettledrummers banging away. It is musical overkill.

All this doesn’t faze Norman Mackenzie.

“I have a marvelous gift,” says Mackenzie, the choral director of the ASO’s award-winning Chorus and Chamber Chorus. “The question is: ‘How do I enhance it? How do I keep it polished and how can I make it go further?’”

Mackenzie is in constant motion. As a conductor, organist, arranger and choral director for the Atlanta Symphony Chorus, he lives and breathes choral music, from the austere polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach to the complex, modern Latinisms of Osvaldo Golijov.

Today he is preparing for a May concert by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, featuring Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony paired with Vesna (“Spring”), a cantata by Sergei Rachmaninoff. But get him onto his favorite subject, his job as director of the most famous chorus in North America, and he lets flow a wealth of wisdom on choral singing and other musical subjects dear to his heart.

One of those is the ASO’s current music director. “My job is rich, varied, and all consuming,” he says happily. “We have Robert Spano as our music director, and he is a marvelous, innovative colleague. He does not regard the choral director as someone for whom he issues edicts.

“We get together monthly, in a big room called the ‘war room’ and we start to plan repertory two, three, even four seasons out. [Spano] is very anxious to get the opinions of all of his musical and conducting staff about the repertory. I am always involved in those meetings.

“I bring works I’d like him to work on. We make sure that the chorus gets a well-balanced repertory, from familiar works like the Beethoven Missa Solemnis to the more exotic works, like Leoš Janácek’s Glagolitic Mass, which we took on tour last fall.”

The Shaw legacy

It is impossible to discuss the history of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra without bringing up Robert Shaw. Shaw, a noted expert in choral music who started the Robert Shaw Chorale in 1949, became music director of the ASO in 1967. In 1970, he founded the all-volunteer ASO Chorus. He was known for his high standards and innovative teaching methods.

“He was incredibly demanding on everybody,” says Mackenzie, who served as Shaw’s assistant both in Atlanta and on tour. “He worked months in advance, if not years on scores. He edited them in such a way that the singers could see what he was after.”

Robert Shaw (1916 - 1999)

Robert Shaw (1916 – 1999)

Shaw died in 1999, but his editorial skills proved invaluable this year. In February, Mackenzie and Spano teamed up to bring the Atlanta chorus to Carnegie Hall for a concert featuring Berlioz’s Requiem, to conclude this year’s Carnegie Hall Choral Workshop, an institution founded by Shaw.

“What Carnegie was after was intergenerational, combining 200 voices,” MacKenzie explains. “Those singers were drawn from adult, professional singers, alongside choruses from the national high school choral festival. This is not a piece that high school voices should be singing, chorally speaking.”

“As was usual for the time, Berlioz wrote a three-part composition—a large soprano part, a scream-y tenor part and a lot of bass and baritone. I wasn’t sure how much the high school tenors would be able to contribute. But we wanted to communicate Shaw’s passion for this kind of music. Carnegie was adamant that they wanted the Berlioz—and if there were two people crazy enough to attempt it it was Spano and myself.

“A year and a half before the concert, before the residency, I went to the schools. My big ally in this was the Robert Shaw-edited score of the Requiem. He divided the alto part between the high tenors and low sopranos. It’s such a smart thing to do and most conductors don’t have the time or the expertise to do it.

“We began with that score edition. That’s what I used with some tweaking. I took the younger voices and put them on the baritone part and moved the sopranos and altos around a bit so they’d have something to do. I [muted] them here and there so they would have some voice left. Then, from the applicants we picked two wonderful high school choirs and I brought the two directors to Atlanta for two days, we did some score study and worked out the high school singers.”

The performance of the Requiem is a profound, if deafening experience. Conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s (instead of his usual ASO band), Robert Spano handled the orchestral complexities with adroit skill. He didn’t even turn around to signal the brass bands, stationed like snipers in the upper levels of the theater.

The climax of this work comes in the second movement, (the Dies Irae). The most famous moment is the Tuba Mirum, a depiction of the sounding of the Last Trumpet from the Book of Revelation. As the brass blare out the wrath of God, the sound carries across the void and is tossed from group to group, whirling around the audience’s head in counterpart with the pounding of the bass drum and the hammering timpani.

From keys to voices

“It was almost by accident that I got into choral directing,” Mackenzie says. “I grew up in Philadelphia. My grandmother was a piano teacher. My mother was a soprano. My father was a bass-baritone by avocation—he was an engineer. I could listen to something on TV and plunk out the same tune on the piano. They got me some wonderful teachers and into competitions, and I played my first concerto with an orchestra when I was 11 years old.

“But being a concert pianist struck me as a lonely life, shut up all the time in a practice room. I love being around people, and communicating with large groups. I sang in a boy choir, and my parents had recordings of the Robert Shaw Chorale lying around the house. I loved choral music right from the start.

“I became an organist. The color possibilities of the organ being like the orchestra, of reducing orchestral scores to the organ led to playing with professional choruses. But once you get bitten by the bug of standing in front of a choir with a stick in your hand, trying out ideas on unsuspecting choristers, there [is] no going back.

Norman Mackenzie. Photo contributed by ASO

Norman Mackenzie. Photo contributed by ASO

“I had a particular skill set which became very valuable. I had done a lot of playing, I was a conductor, and I learned volumes by working with [Shaw] in rehearsals. Once I started playing for the chorus, it was better than getting five doctorates from anybody else. I just absorbed so much.

“One thing he believed in that was absolutely critical was what he called ‘metrical integrity.’ He used to say that large-sized symphony choruses were what he called ‘large mucilaginous messes.’ There was no way to communicate this dynamic of integrity for a small group or a large chorus.

“He had a ‘pyramid’ method, of adding one block at a time. He’d create the pulse, and then the pulse was just time, and time could be subdivided. You can’t just have the chorus begin to sing dynamics. He would take away a lot of that and get down to pitch and metrics, singing quietly and slowly. He’d replace the text with just the numbers of the beats. That takes away two or three things the brain has to worry about.” That method, known as ‘count singing,’ has become a standard teaching method for professional and amateur choruses today.

‘All about discipline’

“Everyone auditions, every single year,” he explains. “There are solo auditions, where the members of the chorus sing for me, and there are round-robins. All the sopranos, for example will sing one of the difficult high parts of the Missa Solemnis, and then they’ll sing it one at a time for each other. There’s no place to hide. It’s very scary for them, and you have to have some confidence to stand up and sing like that in front of your colleagues.

“There’s no denying that great choruses are full of great voices, but you’re not going to get distinguished vocalism out of all 200 members of a symphony chorus. Most symphonic choruses have a core membership, a paid corps of singers. But the Atlanta Symphony Chorus is all volunteers, with singers giving 75 evenings out of their year, time they could be spending with wives and families.

“I look for musicianship, for ear, and for the ability to sight-read,” he continues. “Vocalism is very important but we do so much difficult repertoire and we turn it over so quickly that if you can’t read, if you don’t have that level of musicianship, you’ll be lost. But if there’s a singer whose voice I know is malleable and who I can coach into the sound of the chorus, I’ll take that voice, even if it is not a great voice.

“In the end, the large chorus is all about discipline. From the discipline, the sounds, the accuracy and the agility can all be created and then you can make up for what you may be lacking in distinguished vocalism.

“When Robert Shaw died, those closest to him thought ‘that was it.’ The chorus was built on a cult of personality. But at his funeral, we did an hour and 15 minutes of nonstop music. We had the catharsis and the grief. And then we met Monday night and began to rehearse again. It had become a way of life for people.

“I think that the big question for the chorus was its future when Mr. Shaw died,” Robert Spano adds. “It’s almost a unique situation. They worked almost exclusively with Mr. Shaw. Most choruses don’t function that way, so it was a real question mark about the future.”

“I think that what Norman Mackenzie has been able to do is to perpetuate the spirit and legacy of Mr. Shaw and yet usher them into a new era of greater flexibility and possibility. It has been a beautiful thing to witness his capacity to preserve that tradition.”

“The heart of the chorus is the Shaw tradition,” Spano says. “A few elements of that are salient. Text, and clarity of text. Rhythmic definition. A homogeneity of sound—a true choral blend. They sing as if with one voice.”

From Berlioz to Berlitz

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus has performed and sung a vast repertory in its 40-year history. Its discography includes now-standard recordings of Orff’s Carmina Burana and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony. More recently, it’s recorded Sibelius’ Kullervo Symphony (written in Finnish) and toured the Glagolitic Mass.

This latter work is written in Old Church Slavonic, a dead

“The language barriers are astonishing,” MacKenzie says. “Usually, to prepare a work like that, the entire text is reworked into a web file, that is given to the choristers. We prepare the notes and the rhythms and work on the count singing before we even get to the language.”

“Then we need to have all the sounds in the language in a readable form. If they’re not, if they’re in—say—Cyrillic, we provide a transliteration that looks something like English and put that at the front of the score. In the case of the Old Church Slavonic, we had three consonant sounds that all have to be phonated, and that has to be phonated in such a way that the consonants are slightly ahead of the beat. Otherwise it sounds like the chorus is lagging behind.

“That’s what makes choral singing incredibly complex, and in a way more difficult than just working with an orchestra. The chorus goes on top of all of those other layers of music.

“Luckily, [choral administrator] Jeff Baxter is himself a choral conductor, an excellent diction coach, and something of a musicologist. For the Janácek, we also had a member of the chorus who knew the language, and we were able to make a transliteration. With Kullervo, we brought in a native speaker.

“The wonderful thing about working with this orchestra is that Robert Spano knows young composers, so we do the music of our time. So we are never quite sure what we are going to do with the challenges that those composers give us. Whether they’ll have written a difficult part that the tenor has to sing quickly, or if the basses are forced into a high tessitura.”

ASO music director Robert Spano relates a story from the recording studio. “We were recording Oceana by Osvaldo Golijov,” Spano says. “There are these pirate choruses in it, where the chorus is making these horrific sounds, and it was far from any notion of choral beauty. I remember saying: ‘Now, we need the Shaw chorus back.’”

“They’ve developed this ability to do all these things and at the same time they could come home. That was a moment that, for me, defines the trajectory. I am so grateful to Norman for being the artist that he is.”

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