Norman Mackenzie: Carrying On the Tradition

Classic Arts Features   Norman Mackenzie: Carrying On the Tradition
With Norman Mackenzie at the piano, Robert Shaw began his choral workshops at Carnegie Hall in 1991. Mackenzie continues the tradition for the 20th year this February, presenting Berlioz's Requiem. He discusses the endeavor.


Succeeding Shaw as the Director of Choruses for the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Mackenzie has meticulously maintained Shaw's tradition of excellence. For the 20th anniversary of the first workshop at Carnegie Hall, Mackenzie revisits Berlioz's Requiem: a masterwork that Shaw conducted at his 1993 workshop and that Robert Spano conducts this February in combination with the National High School Festival Chorus. In a recent interview for the Weill Music Institute, Mackenzie discussed this anniversary and how the choral-music legend continues to inspire the next generation of artists.

What did Robert Shaw mean to the world of choral singing?

Simply put, he meant more than any other choral conductor of the 20th century. Through his performances, scholarship, and his uncanny ability to influence and inspire singers both amateur and professional, he almost single-handedly created a unique, communicative, and artistically uncompromising American choral style. And through the legacy of his numerous recordings, many of which are considered landmarks of the genre, he raised the standards of choral singing and performance all over the world.

How did he influence your development as a musician?

Working with him made me a better musician on every level. He was extremely demanding of those who worked closely with him, but always more demanding of himself. Only the very best was good enough. When you worked with Shaw, you were learning from a master who knew every millisecond of every measure of the score at hand. He had analyzed every formal and structural element of the work, solved all of its difficulties to his satisfaction before ever entering the rehearsal hall. In a very real sense, every rehearsal I conduct with our Atlanta choruses is the beneficiary of this extraordinary heritage and work ethic.

What opportunities do projects like this choral workshop present to participating performers?

Through the vehicle of the Carnegie Hall choral workshop of the 1990s, Shaw was able to mold, influence, and inspire an entire generation of choral singers, conductors, and educators. The participants were able to observe the effectiveness and efficacy of his methods and techniques in rehearsal, and watch him direct the preparation of a flawless performance of a choral masterwork from start to finish. But perhaps even more important, they were able to hear him articulate his extraordinary vision for the future of the creative arts in today's fractured culture. Shaw often described great art as being "... not the luxury of the few, but the necessity of the many." I hope there will be similar opportunities for discussion and dialogue in the upcoming Berlioz workshop.

What should audiences know about Berlioz's Requiem?

In every sense, the Berlioz Requiem is a Mount Everest of artistic expression. Its musical, philosophical, and emotional complexities are unique. Its grandeur and drama are unparalleled: how many works feature a full Romantic symphony orchestra, more batteries of timpani than can be fit on any stage, a 200-voice chorus, and four offstage brass bands?

How will you prepare a chorus of students and professionals for a performance of this masterwork?

Any success in performance and in communicating the composer's intentions beyond a raw realization of the notes on the page requires the highest degree of interpretive skill, vocalism, musicianship, and superb metrical and ensemble disciplines. To have the opportunity to scale these musical heights with a combined chorus of talented adult professionals and high school students is certainly one of the most fascinating, daunting, and rewarding possibilities imaginable. And it will require nothing short of our utmost intellect, devotion, and commitment: combined with a good deal of just plain hard work. In short, it is an ideal vehicle for exploration at this 20th anniversary workshop.


Sunday, February 13 at 3 PM
Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage
Carnegie Hall Festival
Anniversary Chorus
Carnegie Hall Festival Chorus
National High School Festival Chorus
Orchestra of St. Luke's
Robert Spano, Conductor
Thomas Cooley, Tenor
Norman Mackenzie, Chorus Director

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