Me and my shadow
Long a disciple of Robert Shaw, ASO Chorus Director Norman Mackenzie has fully emerged as a force of his own
On Feb. 23, the day of the Grammy Awards, Norman Mackenzie couldn't get out of Atlanta. With LaGuardia's short runway fogged in, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's director of choruses waited at a Hartsfield gate for three-and-a-half hours. The ASO had received three nominations for its Telarc recording of Ralph Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony, but if the plane didn't leave by 1:15 p.m., Mackenzie would miss the classical music awards. At 1:12, Mackenzie gathered his bags and prepared to go home.
The ASO had won Grammies before — 18 of them, in fact — but all during the tenure (as music director, music director emeritus and conductor laureate) of the legendary Robert Shaw, the internationally acclaimed high priest and practitioner of choral symphonic music. Shaw founded the ASO's all-volunteer chorus in 1970, and under his direction, it became one of the best in the world, its 200 members singing with the precision and unity more typical of a 20-person chamber chorus. For nearly 30 years, the astonishing talent of the chorus and the brilliance of Robert Shaw were inextricable.
When Shaw died in 1999, there was good reason to wonder whether the chorus could continue without him. "It could easily have collapsed," says William Fred Scott, a frequent guest conductor at the ASO and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera Company. Many of the chorus members had moved to Atlanta or commuted from hours away every week solely because they wanted to study under Shaw. Would the singers stay now that Shaw was gone?
In response to financial cutbacks, many symphonies across the country were doing away with their resident choruses, hiring independent choruses when they were needed. Would the ASO keep its chorus? And even if it did, would the renowned chorus slip into mediocrity without Shaw?
Determined to keep alive what was widely viewed as a local artistic treasure, the ASO hired Shaw's longtime protege, Mackenzie, as their new director of choruses. The message was clear: The ASO Chorus would carry on Shaw's tradition.
?The Education of Mr. Mackenzie
Mackenzie was born into a musical family and was himself a prodigal musician — for many years he assumed he would become a professional concert pianist. He debuted with the Philadelphia Orchestra when he was only 12 and, at 16, became the youngest finalist in the National Young Artist Competition of the American Guild of Organists. To this day, Mackenzie's organ recitals are frequently featured on NPR's "Performance Today" and Minnesota Public Radio's "Pipedreams."
Ironically, it was Mackenzie's ability with the piano and organ that led him to choral music, and his skill as a performer that brought him to conducting. When he was only 15, he became the organist for a Philadelphia church, where his work with the choir sparked his interest in choral music. He would later go on to get his master's degree from the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., where he first met Robert Shaw.
Shaw brought Mackenzie to Atlanta as a keyboardist for the ASO and principal accompanist for the ASO choruses. "Norman's skills on keyboard are phenomenal," says Carol Statella, an alto with the chorus for the past 10 years. "When he was our rehearsal accompanist under Mr. Shaw, his uncanny ability to play the entire orchestral score would occasionally stop the rehearsal in its tracks."
But according to Scott, Shaw probably intended from the beginning that Mackenzie would eventually take on a greater role. "He was in the fold from the first minute he got here," Scott says.
In what would become a 14-year apprenticeship to Shaw, Mackenzie was ever-present as musical assistant and accompanist in Shaw's many choral projects outside the ASO, including the Robert Shaw Chamber Singers, the Robert Shaw Institute choral festivals and the Shaw/Carnegie Hall Choral Workshops. At the ASO, Mackenzie became Shaw's assistant conductor for the choruses, and in Shaw's final years, Mackenzie took on many of his duties.
The roundabout path Mackenzie followed from an instrumental performer to a choral conductor provided him with an exceptionally well-rounded education in music. But he credits his years with Shaw as the most important. "He was just the smartest musician around, period," says Mackenzie. "What I learned from him, just watching him in a choral situation every week, would fill three doctorates."
It's hard to imagine the latter years of Shaw's career without Mackenzie there beside him. When did it happen? No certain time. But somewhere along the way, Mackenzie became much more than an apprentice. His name was less widely known, but nearly all of Shaw's later accomplishments have Mackenzie's mark upon them. "We got to the point where we were inside each other's heads so much that ... I knew exactly how he thought about the music," says Mackenzie. "I was able to assimilate all that myself. Fortunately, his way of thinking was so rational and so wonderfully intelligent, that I wouldn't want to think any other way."
br>?Carrying on a legacy
It's a hell of a burden to follow the greats. The challenge is two-fold: to carry on whatever it was that made your predecessor so remarkable, and to find space in that legacy to make your own contributions. Fail the first, and you'll be judged unworthy of the position you've inherited. Fail the second, and you'll be obscured by memories of your predecessor's achievements.
There is, of course, no finer tribute to greatness than to be surpassed by those you have uplifted and inspired, to know that those who once followed you can now go on without you. Only the egomaniacal want their creations to perish with them.
Beethoven, whose Christ on the Mount of Olives and Symphony No. 2 is performed by the ASO and Chamber Chorus this weekend, was a passionate believer in the potential of music to lift people up and make them capable of their own greatness. Guided by the humanist ideals of Friedrich Schiller and the democratic revolutions of the time, Beethoven believed that art's role was to exalt humanity so that, through enlightened self-governance, we could democratically construct a noble and just civilization.
In Christ on the Mount of Olives, Beethoven depicts an unusually human Jesus, in sharp contrast to the stoic celestial warrior leading the assault against the battlements of hell that was common in earlier oratorios. Beethoven's Jesus doesn't want to die; he has doubts and fears. In the garden of Gethsemane, he prays to God to lift his burden and spare his life, a moment given meager attention in most stories of the path to crucifixion. He sacrifices himself not because he is more than human, but because he is the best of what humanity can be. In Beethoven's telling, Jesus' story should not drop us prostrate in unworthy obedience, but rather inspire us with the revelation that we can be greater than was once supposed.
This was Shaw's method and it is now Mackenzie's: to inspire singers to be better than they ever imagined they could be. Neither believes in driving a chorus to classical conquests through the force of one man's will and waving baton. That kind of artistic tyranny, troublesome enough in a professional chorus, would be fatally untenable with volunteers.
"They do this not because it's a job," says Mackenzie, "but because it's their life. Some would argue that that's the best way to make music: for the sheer joy and for the love of it and because you can't not make it. It's about the electricity that happens in that pursuit of beauty."
That electricity demands and depends upon intense discipline, a commitment based not on obedience but on the shared spiritual imperative of giving over the very best of one's self to the greater whole. "It's discipline of the highest order, and yet when they do it, it's satisfaction of the highest order," Mackenzie says. "It's a high, an absolute high."
These two principles — selfless discipline and collective exaltation — are the heart and soul of the Shaw method. They are what give this large amateur chorus the precision of a much smaller professional chorus and the vitality of a backcountry revival meeting.
?Shining from the Shadows
When he was first appointed director of choruses in 2000, Mackenzie seemed most concerned with demonstrating his commitment and ability to carry on Shaw's legacy. It was a time of grieving both within the ASO and in much of the associated community. Musicians and music lovers needed reassurances; they needed time to heal.
But Mackenzie has since shown himself to be his own man, with his own unique talents and his own vision for the chorus. "What's great about Norman is that he is perpetuating the great tradition that Shaw established," says ASO Music Director Robert Spano, "but at the same time, he's developing the chorus in new directions."
From 1967-'88, the chorus was both prepared and conducted by Shaw. Even when Yoel Levi took over as music director in 1988, the chorus was basically a one-conductor operation. Today, the chorus is asked to perform for many different guest conductors every year. For singers who had so long been fiercely loyal to one man's vision, learning a certain ecumenical receptiveness required a gentle and loving touch.
Through his own example, Mackenzie was able to inspire the generous "letting go" that marks the best of choral music in the Shaw tradition. He has crafted a chorus that still has that Shaw discipline but is more agile than it ever was under Shaw. "The chorus is becoming a much more flexible instrument," says Spano, "and it's Norman's gift that made that possible."
Shaw's passion for choral music had a burning-eyed Romantic intensity to it, both thrilling and at times a little frightening. Mackenzie is more overtly joyful. He laughs loudly and often, and seems absolutely giddy with delight when conducting, talking about classical music or just listening to a good performance. It is perhaps this sense of joy that has returned to the chorus an edgy brilliance that had been buffed nearly out of existence by the end of Shaw's career.
"In Mr. Shaw's last years, he had gotten the chorus to sound enormously clean and sweet — perfectly controlled," says Scott. "As Shaw got older, he really wanted to refine the sound so that it was almost a piece of polished marble."
Under Mackenzie, the chorus has rediscovered a fiery, youthful vigor. They can shock and surprise again, jolt you off your seat and shout out the fog of the day.
br>?Allegro Through Manhattan
Just as Mackenzie was about to go home on the day of the Grammy Awards, the gate agent announced that LaGuardia was clear. Mackenzie got on the plane. In New York, he changed into his tuxedo in an airport men's room, then grabbed a cab. He sat down in his seat at Madison Square Gardens seven minutes before the first classical music award was announced. Mackenzie collected that award and two more before the event was through.
For those keeping score, that's 21 Grammys, and counting.