Robert Shaw chuckles when he says he doesn't mind getting to "the really nasty question first."
All right, then, he's asking for it.
How does Shaw feel about always being referred to as the great choral conductor, rather than simply as a great conductor.
"The difference implies that a person who's a choral conductor is somewhat lesser than one who is a symphonic conductor," says Shaw, who will conduct the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in Mozart's Mass in C Minor ("The Great") and Samuel Barber's "Prayers of Kierkegaard" Thursday, Friday and Saturday Meyerhoff Hall.
"But I wonder," he continues. "[Composer Paul] Hindemith always said flat-out that the most remarkable pieces ever written were those of the 16th century, that society will come to its senses and realize that we've over-valued the symphonic repertory and that choral music is the most mature and emotionally important music in the repertory."
Certainly, few people would be fool enough to deny that Shaw is the most important figure in the performance of choral music in the 20th century. That assessment dates back as far as 1943, when a citation from the National Association of Composers and Conductors called the 26-year-old musician "America's greatest choral conductor."
"Can you believe that I'm almost 80 now?" says Shaw.
That is hard to believe. Shaw is powerful and vigorous on stage, hearty and enthusiastic in conversation.
While Shaw is no slouch with an orchestra-only Brahms or Beethoven symphony, the results he achieves with the chorus-and-orchestra "Missa Solemnis" or "German Requiem" are usually extraordinary.
It seems almost pre-determined that the California-born Shaw would become a choral conductor. His father was a minister and his mother, the daughter of a minister, was a well-known gospel singer.
At Pomona College, he majored in literature and philosophy with little or no thought about a career in music. That all changed when the famous bandleader Fred Waring arrived at the Pomona campus to make a movie and heard Shaw conduct the college glee club. Waring invited the youngster to come to New York to form the Fred Waring Glee Club, and the rest was history.
In the distant days of live radio broadcasts, the Fred Waring Glee Club caused something of a sensation in the choral world. Every word could be understood, the intonation and balances were flawless, and singing teachers around the country began to tell their students to listen to the programs for examples of excellent singing.
It became clear to no less than Arturo Toscanini that Shaw had achieved results with voices similar to those the great Italian conductor had attained with instruments. It was only a few years later that Toscanini, rehearsing Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 with a chorus that Shaw had prepared for him, turned to his orchestra and said, "In Robert Shaw I have at last found the maestro I have been looking for."
For Toscanini and the NBC Symphony (and later for George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra) Shaw created choruses for Verdi's Requiem that could produce a wall of sound such as had never before been heard, and that could lighten miraculously for Handel oratorios and Haydn's masses.
His experience with Toscanini inspired Shaw to expand into symphonic conducting. He studied formally in 1950 with the great conductors Pierre Monteux and Artur Rodzinski; an invitation two years later from his friend Szell to guest-conduct the Cleveland Orchestra persuaded him "to make the big switch."
He was associate conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra from 1956-67, leaving in the final year to become music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
That move took courage. The ASO was a community orchestra with 60 players, most of them amateurs, who played in a civic arena. The next 21 years constituted one of the glorious chapters in American symphonic history.
Shaw transformed the Atlanta ensemble into a major orchestra, helped to build it a home in a superb new concert hall and recorded several best-selling albums for the Telarc label that won the orchestra prizes -- including 13 Grammies -- as well as an international reputation.
Although he resigned seven years ago, Shaw continues to record with the ASO and with the Robert Shaw Festival Singers. He began that group as part of his activities with the Robert Shaw Institute, which was founded to foster excellence in music, especially in the choral arts.
"So I don't consider it a derogation to find satisfaction in choral music," Shaw says. "As someone whose early interests were philosophy, literature and religion, this confluence of text and music gives me joy and satisfaction. The texts that find their way into serious music are generally terrific. If you look only at those set by Benjamin Britten, for example, it's impossible to find one that is not a masterpiece."
There's another reason Shaw loves to conduct choral music.
"The choruses I work with are almost always made up of volunteers who do it for love," he says. "The expression 'professional musical artist' always seemed a little strange to me. I have always figured that it must be as hard to be one of those as it would be to be a professional sexual artist."
Shaw and the BSO
Where: Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
When: 8:15 p.m., Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
$ Call: (410) 783-8000