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."