City Choir and director celebrate 10 years

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Michael Doan

City Choir of Washington director Robert Shafer has a long history leading choruses in the Washington area, and will direct the choir in a program of holiday music on Dec. 18.
Photo courtesy of Michael Doan

Almost 50 years since he started conducting, Robert Shafer is still waving his baton. The former Washington Chorus director, 70, is now leading the City Choir of Washington into its 10th anniversary season.

Shafer’s 35 years of work with the Washington Chorus included more than 400 concerts that he conducted or helped prepare for the Kennedy Center. During that time he had six European tours and a Grammy win in 2000 for Britten’s War Requiem.

But after he was ousted from the Washington Chorus, for reasons that are unclear to many singers, more than 50 chorus members followed him to help form the City Choir.

“Bob had enough choral equity built up that the City Choir of Washington could burst onto the Washington choral scene and shine brightly,” said Debra Wynn, who has sung with him in both choruses.

Filling a choral niche

Starting with a small budget, City Choir debuted in the fall of 2007 with Handel’s Solomon performed at Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall in Alexandria, Va. Since then, the group has performed at Lincoln Center in New York, the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, the Washington National Cathedral, the Music Center at Strathmore and other well-known venues.

“With 100 or so singers, we can provide the intimate expression of a chamber choir that you could never provide in a chorus of 180 to 200,” said Shafer. “Yet, we can perform pieces that a smaller chorus could never do.”

Shafer notes the choir’s size and venues also allow it to do more innovative works than could be done if there was a need to sell thousands of tickets in a big hall.

Among works recently performed are Sir John Tavener’s Requiem Fragments, (a North American premiere), Benjamin Britten’s Cantata Misericordium, and works by Arvo Pärt and Tarik O’Regan, along with traditional masterworks.

Thus he feels City Choir has found its niche as a medium-sized ensemble mixing experimental works with those of the masters.

As a serious director, Shafer admits that his rehearsals are not designed only to have fun. “When singers seek greatness in something they truly love, it can create joy far greater than having fun, say, at an amusement park,” he said.

At rehearsals, rather than repeatedly run pieces all the way through, Shafer will drill intensely on small sections until they are refined. “It is like taking a Swiss watch apart, polishing each piece and putting it together again,” he said.

Washington Chorus alumni explain why they joined him with City Choir:

“He has the best ‘ear’ of any conductor I know,” said Elaine Wunderlich.

“He has a commitment to precision and discipline in choral singing that I have not experienced elsewhere,” said Bill Gilcher.

“Bob is a good teacher, and singers want to learn from him,” added Carol Edison.

From piano to people

The City Choir’s maestro actually started off as a pianist, earning his bachelor’s degree in piano performance and a master’s in music composition at Catholic University.

But he began his career in choral conducting 48 years ago, at the age of 22, at Madison High School. He’s never looked back.

As a conductor, “you are working with people — not a machine called a piano. The human voice is the most direct way of artistic and musical expression, and you are not looking at black and white keys all day,” he said. “On the other hand, the ivory keys don’t talk back to you,” he added.

For nine summers, Shafer trained in France with Nadia Boulanger, who taught some of the 20th century’s greatest conductors and composers.

In 1971, he took the reins of the Oratorio Society of Montgomery County, which later became the Washington Chorus. He was also music director of St. Matthew’s Cathedral for three years, and at the Basilica of the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception for six years.

He also served as professor of music at Shenandoah Conservatory in Winchester, Va., from 1983 until his retirement from that post last spring.

After such a lifetime of accomplishments, some conductors might want to scale back. In contrast, Shafer is going full throttle with City Choir. “I am working at the highest level I have ever been able to do in my concerts,” he said.

Shafer has established a three-year plan for City Choir, to include such works as Bach’s Mass in B Minor, Monteverdi’s Vespers, the Handel opera Acis and Galatea, and a possible tour in the United Kingdom.

Looking back on his 48 years as a conductor in Washington, Shafer reflected, “I am so grateful for every opportunity that I have had in symphonic and chamber choral music, every student I have taught, and every note of church music that I have played and conducted. Even at a couple of unsure crossroads along the way, God has always led me to something better. I couldn’t be happier.”

Holiday music up next

The anniversary year calendar includes “The Holly and the Ivy: Music for Christmas” on Dec. 18, Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem on March 12, and a reprise of Handel’s Solomon on May 7.

The Dec. 18 Christmas concert will take place at 4:30 p.m. at the National Presbyterian Church, 4101 Nebraska Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.

Ticket prices range from $40 to $50. Obstructed view tickets are $15. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (571) 206-8525 or see http://thecitychoirofwashington.org.

Michael Doan is a retired journalist with the Associated Press, US News & World Report and Kiplinger, and a member of the City Choir.