A new chapter in a new year

Dec 27, 2010

A Seattle musical institution and its volunteer performers find strength in the memory of the group's founder, a man whose creative energy remains an inspiration to move forward following his death earlier this year.

Conductor George Shangrow had a pair of silvery eyebrows that could dance.

"Have you seen pictures of him? I have some pictures I could share with you that kind of illustrate those eyebrows," says singer Laurie Medill, the business manager for Orchestra Seattle - Seattle Chamber Singers, the musical group Shangrow founded.

In her home office in Seattle, Medill pulls up a photo: Shangrow. Clownish. And those eyebrows, as well as a moustache he wanted to grow handlebar style.

Violinist Stephen Hegg says Shangrow could tell you what he wanted with just a glint in his eye. He also had a way with metaphors.

"He wouldn’t say to the violins. ‘Oh, can we have a little drier spiccato here?’  He would say, ‘Um, you know how oil is when you drop it into a pan and the pan is too hot? It just explodes. That’s what I want it to sound like.'"

Over the past 13 years, Shangrow helped Hegg not only become a better musician but he gave him an extended family.  

"I came into the organization and orchestra a kind of sloppy and lazy violinist but with a deep need to complete something in myself," Hegg says. "And in Orchestra Seattle, I found that community and I found people and a person, George, who really made this music exciting.  More than anything else, George always wanted you to find the same joy that he found in the music that we were playing."

George Shangrow loved baroque music. He played the harpsichord, piano and organ.

He was just a Seattle high school kid when he founded Seattle Chamber Singers forty years ago. 

The group later grew to include the Orchestra. The combined number of musicians and singers now totals 120 people.

But Hegg and Seattle’s classical music community were sent reeling on July 31st, 2010.

"Somebody called me on the phone and told me George had been killed in a car accident and I hung up the phone and I was just dumbstruck. I was just frozen."

The numbness lasted. So did the grief. The group felt as if they were the planets but they had lost their sun. And all that was left was a black hole named George. 

The members of Orchestra Seattle Seattle Chamber Singers are volunteers. Former college singers and musicians. Retirees and people who work all day and then give up their free time each week to rehearse and perform.

Now, with emotions raw, they had to decide whether the group should keep going.

But how do you find your voice when you hurt?

"Ah, that’s a good question. I guess we just think about George. I’ve heard many people say, What Would George do?" Medill says.

"You know, he had tragedy in his life. His father died when he was quite young. A brother and his mother predeceased him. And he always continued. If there was a concert planned it happened whether he was grieving or not. And he always continued. He devoted his love of music to the people that he lost and I think we are trying to do the same thing."

"To not go on is unthinkable," adds Hegg. "To go on means a lot of work. A lot of hard work."

The work, of course, means continuing to hone your talent. But it also means getting used to looking at – and listening to – a new and different person standing in Shangrow’s place.

Roupen Shakarian leads rehearsal inside Seattle’s University Christian Church. He’s one of several guest conductors stepping into the void created by Shangrow’s death.

He can see how the musicians and singers still mourn for Shangrow, sometimes losing their concentration.

"The music is a reminder," Shakarian says. "Unavoidably they are going to be reminded by every note, every passage, every phrase."

But Shakarian says they can’t move forward unless they look back and remember their conductor. And that’s through the music.

More guests will continue to fill in – likely even next season. Not everyone agrees they should continue rudderless but others say they can’t imagine committing to a new replacement just yet.

"You know we weren’t just an extension of George, but I think we’re going to have to rediscover ourselves," Hegg says.

How do you do that?"

"I think you have to be open to new ideas. It’s a mindset of making the most of the opportunity that you have with another musician. To explore new things. Do something maybe a little differently but more than anything else play your very best."

And that’s what they’ve been trying to do at every concert since the summer.  To do it the way George would have wanted them to. Or at least, in a way that George would have enjoyed.

Community tributes posted about Shagrow can be found here.