The legendary choral leader and symphonic maestro Robert Shaw died nearly two decades ago, but his spirit lives on in numerous people who worked with him over his remarkable career. William Fred Scott, music director of the globally renowned a cappella ensemble Chanticleer since 2015, is one of them. He and his 12-man “orchestra of voices” are back in Chicago on Dec. 4-5 to perform two Symphony Center Presents holiday-themed concerts at Fourth Presbyterian Church, just off the Magnificent Mile.
As associate conductor of the Shaw-led Atlanta Symphony Orchestra from 1981 to 1988, Scott got an intensive musical education, whose key principles continue to guide him. After Shaw’s death in 1999, Scott employed those principles in leading the famed Atlanta Symphony Chorus during six consecutive annual Christmas concerts. He also has applied them during guest conducting stints with various opera companies and symphony orchestras throughout America and Europe.
Above all, Scott says, Shaw stressed the need for in-depth study before conducting or teaching any music. And slacking off was unthinkable. “I didn’t get the commitment to scholarship until I started working with Mr. Shaw,” Scott says. “He essentially said, ‘You have to have examined every single line of every single score, and there’s no excuse for [not] taking the time to do that. He also had such a concept of time management. He was so respectful of other people’s time and so respectful of what you needed to do to get X, Y and Z accomplished. I discovered that the same choral disciplines — how long or short, how soft or loud, the quality of attack — have to apply when you’ve got any group of people in front of you that’s bigger than two.”
Since its founding in San Francisco in 1978, Chanticleer has always a roster of 12, with three men covering each voice part — soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Because Scott doesn’t sing with the group (unlike its previous four music directors), he’s able to give feedback — on intonation, harmony, dynamics — from out in the house. He also has, he says, brought a bit more (welcome) discipline to what was already a high-functioning enterprise. With more than 100 concerts per year, 20 to 30 new pieces of music to learn and four different programs to prepare, efficient time management is paramount.
When it comes to Chanticleer’s annual holiday performances, Scott believes there’s no need to reinvent the proverbial wheel. “This Christmas concert is not going to be about the mysterious years that Jesus spent in India,” he says, joking. “My thinking is that each of these concerts is kind of a Christmas crèche, so there are going to be the baby and the mother and Joseph and the Wise Men and shepherds and angels and townsfolk. In some degree, each of those figures is going to appear. Some years I spend more time with the Three Kings, and some years I spend more time with the shepherds, and some years I spend more time with the angels, just to shake it up a bit.”
As performance venues go, Fourth Presbyterian ranks high on Scott’s (and the group’s) list of favorites. “I can’t tell you enough how much I love that space,” he says. “I like the look of the building. I like the feeling of music in that room. I think it’s a holy place in many, many respects. The minute I walked into Fourth Presbyterian with Chanticleer, I thought, ‘This is something really special.’”
That reverence is reflected in the tone and repertoire of each holiday performance.
“One of the things the Chanticleer Christmas concert does not do — and this is a tradition I’m happy to have inherited — there is no Santa Claus, there are no silver bells, there are no reindeer,” Scott says.
“This is a serious and religious Christmas concert, and I love it for that reason.”
TOP: Chanticleer, with music director William Fred Scott (fifth from right), will return for the ensemble’s annual holiday residency at the Fourth Presbyterian Church. | Photo: ©Lisa Kohler