A Sandy Spring resident’s project to preserve the history of an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra conductor has turned into an award-winning documentary that will get a national TV audience.
The documentary, titled “Robert Shaw – Man of Many Voices,” will be broadcast on PBS’ “American Masters” program June 21 at 9 p.m. The film follows the rise and influence of Shaw, who conducted the orchestra and its chorus for over 20 years.
The film was conceived of and executive produced by Kiki Wilson, who is in her 38th season of singing in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus. Wilson is one of the about 30 members left who sang in Shaw’s chorus, and she wanted his contributions to Atlanta music and the orchestra world to be remembered.
“I wanted to make sure there was a mechanism available for people not to forget who Shaw was,” she said. “That was my goal.”
The documentary won several awards from film festivals and became an official selection at one. It also won three Southeast Emmys last year. Because of its broadcast on PBS, the film is eligible for the national Emmy awards next year, Wilson said.
“Little did I know that it would become a much bigger thing than I would ever, ever have thought,” she said.
Wilson, who has never been involved in a film before, found it similar to organizing any other kind of project, and credits her team for making it a successful documentary. The film was produced in partnership with the orchestra and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
Wilson secured funds for the $1 million project through fundraising efforts like a 2013 gala, which included current Conductor Robert Spano as a performer. She also held first-hand knowledge about Shaw and was key in building the script.
Getting on PBS has been one the longest hurdles, taking three years to navigate the complex process. The documentary also had to be cut down to fit in its time slot, she said.
The documentary already premiered in April 2016 to a sold-out crowd in the Atlanta Symphony Hall in time for what would have been Shaw’s 100th birthday, Wilson said. Shaw died in 1999 in Connecticut.
Wilson and the team did over 30 interviews for the film, including from prominent figures like renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, famed NPR classical music host Martin Goldsmith and former Atlanta Mayor, U.S. Representative and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young. The documentary was narrated by David Hyde Pierce, famous for his role in the sitcom “Frasier.”
President Jimmy Carter, who was also interviewed in the film, chose Shaw to perform music at his inauguration in 1977 and appointed Shaw to the National Council on the Arts in 1979.
They filmed in several locations around the metro area, including in the basement Wilson’s home in Sandy Springs. Much of the script writing was also done in her basement, where arranged sticky notes on details of Shaw’s life still hang on the walls.
Shaw was brought on in 1967 during the creation of the Woodruff Arts Center, which combines the orchestra, Alliance Theatre and High Museum. The center was founded in 1968 in memory of the many Atlanta arts patrons who died in a crashed flight from Paris.
He founded the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1970 and grew the all-volunteer group into an award-winning program.
Over the years, Shaw was awarded several awards and medals, along with numerous honorary degrees. He also conducted the orchestra at Carnegie Hall several times. He climbed to prominence with little formal music training, Wilson said.
He was known for pushing boundaries with the type of music that could played and for growing the orchestra and chorus’ profiles, Wilson said.
“He pushed the limits,” Wilson said. “He insisted everything.”
He remained the conductor until 1988, founding the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus, championing the use of modern music and allowing black players for the first time in the South.
For what people Wilson wants people to take away from the film, she said, “I want people to know the arts under Robert Shaw are a place where everybody is equal.”