Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Maestro John McLaughlin Williams: 4 Roles on Dorian CD 'Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works'

[John McLaughlin Williams]

AfriClassical learned of Eliesha Nelson's CD “Quincy Porter: Complete Viola Works” from the African American conductor John McLaughlin Williams, who won a Grammy in 2007 and was nominated for a Grammy in 2009 as well. We interviewed John on Sept. 19, 2009:
Can I start with where you were born?
I was actually born in Greensboro, North Carolina. That's a town where my grandparents lived, my Mom's parents. My grandfather was Dean of A & T, the university there, for some years.
Would that be Agricultural and Technical?
Exactly, yes. It's a famous school there actually.
Was that the same community in which you were raised then?
No, well I spent every Summer down there. My brothers and I always spent a good part of the Summers with our grandparents down there. So Greensboro actually turned out to be a second home. I went one entire year of high school in Greensboro, my last year. So that's why I graduated from Grimsley High, in Greensboro. All my other precollege education had taken place in Washington, D.C., which is where my parents lived. And that's where I began to study the violin.
Somehow you began poring over Baker's Biographical Dictionary at an unusually early age?
My parents both played piano. They had lots of music in their own library, and I began to peruse all these books they had, Baker's being among them. It was a fascinating tome for me.
I have also read that you got some ideas from that as to what some of the nuggets of valuable, overlooked music could be?
Well, absolutely. You read an article about someone, I think in the edition of Baker's I had it said Nikolai Myaskovsky, “eminent Russian composer.” Someone that warrants four pages in Baker's and is called “eminent” and has a works list that's a mile long, that says that there's something valuable here and it's worth investigating. You had to ask yourself why you weren't hearing that in the concert halls? Well that's a question I asked myself probably hundreds of times as I read Baker's through and through. It certainly did come in handy, and certainly will later, when the time came for me to propose some projects for Naxos and its American Classics Series. I really had no problem reaching back and throwing out a whole cadre of names of people to consider for a recording.
What instruments had you studied, John?
Well, I formally studied violin, though I played other things, and in high school I actually played trumpet and trombone, and I actually played quite a bit of French horn. But it's the piano that I really persistently pursued, though I never studied piano in the formal sense, I never had any piano lessons. I literally taught myself by studying Scarlatti sonatas! I used it as an antidote almost for the violin.
Has violin been your primary instrument then?
Yes, violin is my primary instrument. I always had lessons on the violin. My formal study and my major in college up until the Cleveland Institute was always Violin Performance.
Where did you go to college before the Cleveland Institute of Music?
Boston University and the New England Conservatory.
What emphasis did you have in your studies at those two schools?
Violin Performance, exclusively. It wasn't until much later that I decided to shift gears, when I went through the Cleveland Institute of Music and began to study conducting and composition.
So you went to the Cleveland Institute specifically to do graduate work in conducting?
Is there any specific thing that had inspired you to get into the work of conducting?
Well, yes. I finally realized that if I was going to do any interesting programs, to play something that I really wanted to, that I'd have to be in a position to call the tune. The interesting thing is, now when I look back, my early training, the breadth of it, and taking in piano literature and all the literatures about composers and dictionaries, and training myself in piano, reading the scores and everything, I realize that in actuality, all these years I have been training myself to be a conductor! A time came when I realized I had gone as far as I could just being a violinist and it was time to really make a change.
I have to ask you about the graduate work; I understand that you did a project there on William Grant Still?
I didn't do a project there, but they did do every year a “Black Heritage Concert.” So when I came there they allowed me to program and conduct these concerts with the school symphony orchestra, which was a great experience in addition to all the other conducting experience I was getting at the school anyway, so they would put together these programs with specialized repertoire, and I did do quite a bit of Still. Things that hadn't had an airing in quite a while like the “Archaic Ritual” or his hybrid cantata/oratorio “And They Lynched Him On A Tree.” I did it each year for the three years I was there.
Did you feel that the music of Still and other Black composers was a significant part of the overlooked music?
Oh absolutely! I've been playing Still's music on the violin since I was a student the first time. So his neglect was not new to me and I'd always intended to do as much as I could to promote his larger works. Because you see Still was yet to hear any of his operas, so his true status as an American composer can't be reckoned until we hear the works that he thought the most of himself. Really, he was very seriously into composing operas. I think that's where he put his best efforts.
Would you regard “Troubled Island” then to be a significant achievement?
Oh, absolutely, there's no doubt about it! Aside from the historical novelty of it being the first opera by a Black composer to be done by a major opera company, the fact is, the music's terrific! It offers tremendous performance opportunities for the chorus, it will make a delightful staging, it's a really good story, and you can glean all these things from the faded historical recording that you can get from William Grant Still Music.
How many recordings have you made?
Oh gee...
You had one come out last month, I understand?
Well, I suppose, it either came out last month...
August 25 is what it says on Amazon, “Dancing on the Brink of the World”?
I wasn't sure about that because Cambria is also recently distributed by Naxos, so I wasn't sure if that was the official release or not. Including the “Quincy Porter” that's coming out in a week or so, there are eleven out all together.
It sounds like someone who should be a conductor!
(Laughs) That's what I keep telling myself!
Can I ask how you became interested in “The Quincy Porter Project”?
Well of course, working with Eliesha is a thing I've always wanted to do! But the producers are Marina and Victor Ledin. They are several-time Grammy nominees who have been in the business many years. They've produced Grammy-winning recordings for other people. I think the “Viola Concerto” particularly is probably the greatest concerto written for the viola. It's really something!
Well, you mentioned the leg work being done by Eliesha – apparently that included standing in Lake Erie?
(Laughs) You never know how things are going to work out. But it turned out beautifully!
I see that you did a harpsichord track on this CD?
Yes, I filled several roles on that CD. Of course I'm conducting the orchestra for the “Viola Concerto,” but I also am playing piano, harpsichord and violin on the other works.
That's almost something of a record!
You know it might be! I know there have been others who might conduct the orchestra and play violin or play piano, but I'm not sure if anyone has ever done piano, violin and harpsichord on a single CD? I don't think so. I'm going to call Guinness!
Is there anything you'd like to say about the works, either the earlier or the later ones?
First of all, he has a very recognizable voice, but it can be a subtle one sometimes. As I said before, his writing is highly considered and very judicious.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
It's amazing how many African American musicians are involved in classical music these days, but a lot of folks wouldn't hear about it if it weren't for AfriClassical!
Thank you, I very much appreciate your support!

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