Tribute: George Shangrow, a roaring presence on Seattle's classical-music scene
A tribute to the career of Seattle conductor and teacher George Shangrow, whose death in a car accident at age 59 was a shock to the city's classical-music family.
Special to The Seattle Times
The news no one could quite believe was ricocheting around Facebook, Twitter and the phone lines with increasing speed Sunday evening and Monday, as more and more friends and fans tried to come to terms with the sudden death of George Shangrow in a car accident on Highway 20 on July 31.
It's a loss that feels deeply personal to so many in the music community. It's personal to the musicians who worked with him in his Orchestra Seattle and Seattle Chamber Singers, who are now orphaned by the loss of their founder/conductor. And personal to the soloists he believed in, and the composers he championed, and the audiences he entertained and educated. And to the musical partners who performed with George at the keyboard, the listeners inspired by his lectures, and the radio audiences who followed his zesty interviews and commentary on KING-FM's "Live, By George" show.
Why is this one man so important? Because it's impossible to think of anyone who more embodied the essential joy of music — the visceral thrill of great music, great performances and wholehearted participation. George's heart and soul were bound up in this joy, and he was determined to share it with the world.
When George buttonholed you, beaming and exclaiming "You've GOT to hear this!," you knew your next hour was spoken for. It would be a recording of pianist Mark Salman ("an unbelievable artist!") playing Beethoven, or perhaps a new piece by Robert Kechley ("one of the greatest composers today!"), or an old disc of the Elizabethan Singers performing British folk songs ("You'll love this!"). Whoever it was, you could be sure of a performance that communicated energy and fun, one that shunned dull orthodoxy.
Music lovers will long remember the roaring excitement of George's Bach performances on the harpsichord with his longtime duo partner, flutist Jeff Cohan. How often do you get to use "roaring excitement" and "Bach sonatas" in the same sentence? Not often enough, George would say. He also specialized in getting the most possible excitement out of Handel's "Messiah," an annual fixture on his concert schedule. As a festive postscript, he inaugurated the after-Christmas tradition of the "Sing Along, Play Along Messiah," conducting all comers for years in a boisterous come-as-you-are version of the Handel classic in University Unitarian Church.
A Shangrow performance was less concerned about details of historical practice than about extracting the "juice" of the music and presenting it to listeners. As a conductor, he was so riveting to watch that the performers visually locked onto his face and his hands, ready to follow him anywhere. Rehearsals for the Seattle Chamber Singers (with which I sang in the 1970s, before becoming a music critic) were never a dull slog. They were usually both serious and uproarious, full of fun and jokes that sometimes were unprintable.
Irreverent, funny and erudite, George had plenty of chutzpah and a substantial ego — but he was the first to recognize when he was wrong. In the late '70s, when I had an extra set of tickets to Seattle Opera's Wagnerian "Ring," I invited George to come along. He had previously dismissed the "Ring" as not particularly interesting, but this firsthand experience transformed him. He immediately began reading everything he could find on the subject, becoming a passionate advocate and eventually an inspiring lecturer on these operas.
George's deep commitment to new music meant lots of fundraising to drum up enough money for a commission. In the nonprofit-arts world, this kind of money is very difficult to find, but he was persistent. He also knew what he wanted: music that had beauty, expressive content and the ability to communicate. George had no patience with compositional gimmicks or random sounds from what he called "the Squawk-Bleep School." The composers he championed — Kechley, Carol Sams, Huntley Beyer — produced over the past four decades a remarkable body of work that might not have come to the public without Shangrow's enthusiasm and determination.
One reason George's Seattle musical roots are so deep is that he started so early. He was still in high school when he founded the Seattle Chamber Singers. Back in early 1969, when Shangrow was only 17, the Roosevelt High School senior was already termed "a genius" by another legend, Seattle Times feature writer Don Duncan, who cited his talents as composer, arranger, pianist, harpsichordist, choral director, and teacher of flute, piano and organ. "One thing seems certain," Duncan accurately predicted. "We will be hearing more about George Shangrow in the years ahead."
Ever since his high-school years, George remained deeply loyal to his musical friends, many who continued to perform with him regularly over the years. The opera singer Margaret Russell, now based in Germany, joined Sams (who also is a singer) in a Seattle duo recital with Shangrow at the keyboard last summer, reuniting friendships that span four decades. Russell's husband, Dennis Van Zandt, also one of Shangrow's closest friends since high school, has continued his love for choral singing in Germany. Over the years, George's musicians would bring their new babies to rehearsals in their backpacks and baskets; later, as toddlers, the kids would rampage through church pews during rehearsals, and finally they'd start their own music lessons, as the years rolled past.
It's no exaggeration, however, to say that thousands of Seattle-area music lovers considered George Shangrow a friend, even those who only knew him as that great radio voice announcing the next musical treat in store. Gregarious, enthusiastic and never happier than before a receptive audience, George also made friends of hundreds of students who learned from him at the Seattle Conservatory of Music, Seattle Community College and Seattle University.
George's longtime friend and violinist Deede Cook observed: "Our time in Seattle Chamber Singers was such a rich period for all of us — young, trying to make sense of the world, coming of age as adults, and establishing ourselves as musicians. Passions ran high — and so did creativity. And our beloved George was at the center of the storm. I am so grateful to him for all that beautiful music and I feel so sad that we will not have the opportunity of enjoying a delightful friendship together in our old age."
The greatest loss, of course, is to Shangrow's only child, Daisy (almost 15), who was the light of her father's life. He waited a long time to become a parent, and threw himself into that role with total joy, involving himself deeply in her education. Never was a father more proud of his daughter — her sweet nature, her appearance and her musical talent as a budding cellist. Friends were eagerly shown the latest Daisy photos and regaled with tales of her progress.
Shangrow, 59, is survived by family that also includes brother Robert, sisters Reba Utevsky and Mary Schimmelbusch, stepsons Zachary and Luke Wheeler, nephew Spencer Shangrow, and nieces Nicola Shangrow-Reilly, Olivia Shangrow, and Natasha, Hazel and Nora Utevsky. Relatives are still deciding details of a memorial. Judging from all those e-mails, posts and phone calls from devastated colleagues and friends, they're going to need a very large venue. A chunk of Seattle's musical heart has been ripped away. And people are grieving.
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