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Conductor/Violinist John McLaughlin Williams discusses Bax and his American Premiere Performance of the Violin Concerto


Last Modified October 6, 1999 
John McLaughlin Williams

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It's amazing to learn that Bax's Violin Concerto had what is believed to be its first and only American performance just a few years ago. The musician responsible for this splendid revival is the adventurous American violinst/composer/conductor John McLaughlin Williams. John is an ardent admirer of Bax's music and in the interview below, he presents a strong case why he considers Bax among the very greatest of British composers and why his music needs to be performed more often. I appreciate John for allowing me to hear his glorious account of the concerto and for his willingness to be interviewed.

Richard Adams: You gave what is believed to be the premiere performance of Bax's Violin Concerto in the United States. That's an impressive distinction, particularly for an American artist. You are also developing a duo career as a conductor. Can we start off by discussing your musical background? 

John McLaughlin Williams: I grew up in Washington, D.C. My parents were both very good pianists who met each other while studying music at Howard University in D.C. My father was particularly accomplished, but unfortunately he came up at a time when African-American classical artists were not accepted on the American concert stage. They tried to teach me the piano when I was quite young. I balked however, because the tunes they wanted me to play sounded nothing at all like the Bach and Chopin that I heard issue from their piano. So I heard a lot of music but participated not at all till I was 10 years old.

At that time there were string programs in the public schools, and I grabbed a violin. My parents thought I showed some promise so lessons were procured. I played a concerto with the National Symphony at 14, and went to Boston Univ., where I studied with Jerome Rosen (former asst. Concertmaster of the Boston Sym). I also attended the New England Conservatory, studying with Dorothy Delay for 2 years. I freelanced in Boston, playing in the Boston Symphony violin section a lot, the Opera, etc. I played in New York with the Orchestra of St. Luke's, and some Broadway shows as well. I played recitals and appeared as soloist with many orchestras in the New England area, including the Boston Pops, Boston Ballet orch., Portland Sym (MAINE), the Virginia Sym., South Carolina Phil., Civic Symphony.

Two and a half years ago I returned to school (the Cleveland Institute of Music) to get degrees in conducting and composition, graduating last spring. In that time I've conducted many works and had a large orchestral composition of mine performed and broadcast. I felt that I could make more of a difference in the music business as a conductor/composer, as conductors have more say in what gets performed. Clearly, to me at least, most conductors have proven to be astoundingly unoriginal in their programming, constantly replaying old pieces in which they have nothing to say, rather than finding some vital work that could use their advocacy. Which brings me to Bax.

RA: When did you first become acquainted with Bax's music?

JMW: My first intellectual acquaintance with Bax was as a teenage student, looking through Baker's biographical dictionary. So many composers (Bax too) were written of as important and of stature, yet I had heard nothing of their works. Then at N.E.C. I found the score to the 1st Violin Sonata (1st version) in the library, and I bought the Lyrita LP's of the 1st and 6th symphonies. The latter two works were a revelation: Strong, biting, hard-edged music of struggle, yet tinged with the wistfulness of one who has known loss. I was hooked.

RA: What impresses you most about Bax's music?

JMW: Its great integrity. Bax is what he is, a complete voice walking his own path. He is eclectic (which used to be the worst curse an English critic could throw at you), but all his musical forebearers are totally absorbed. As a composer you can ask for little more than your own identifiable voice. And that is what Bax has.  Like Strauss, Delius, Mahler or Korngold, about two bars are all one needs to identify Bax's music.

RA: Have you had any opportunities to hear live Bax performances in the United States and are there any recordings of Bax's music that have impressed you over the years?

JMW: I have never heard a live performance of an instrumental or orchestral work of Bax, save my own. As for recordings, the Lyrita symphonies are unsurpassed, though B. Thomson gave us a great reading of the 2nd and 6th. Handley is really the best, I think. He did an incisive 4th with the Guildford Phil., which shows the piece to be not at all slack. And that Spring Fire on Chandos! The recent Hyperion chamber set is excellent, though I treasure the old recording of the Nonet with Goosens, etc. I have a tape of Joyce Hatto doing piano works, in which her playing of the Toccata is exquisite.

RA: When did you first become familiar with the Bax's Violin Concerto and what drew you to the work?

JMW: I knew it was in Bax's catalogue, and after reading Peter J. Pirie's negative assessment in his book, "The English Musical Renaissance," I became really interested. I went to the Library of Congress in Wash. D.C. and got a copy to study. Though Bax's orchestral style translates badly to the piano, I had heard enough of his music to know that the concerto is a special piece and that it would "sound." My eye was caught initially by the very restless chromatic opening and the beautiful Celtic tune (with harp) that forms the 2nd part of the 1st movement's tripartite structure.

RA: What are the challenges of the work both technically and interpretively?

JMW: Technically, like the Dvorak concerto, it is rather awkward writing, which is not the same as virtuosic writing. The figurations in the part cause strange hand positions and shifts (moving up and down the fingerboard), and there are many double-stops. Again, it is not the most obviously virtuosic writing, which is no doubt why the concerto was rejected by Heifetz. Still, it is effectively written. The solo part is a part of the musical narrative rather than a soloist versus orchestra kind of thing.  Musically it can be elusive. It is late Bax, and I think it is impossible to play the work sensitively without a fairly broad knowledge of Bax's music. It is tempting to play the concerto with a full head of steam, as if pumped up on steroids, but that is not the character of the work. I find it wistful and more than a little sad. (The Ballad of the 1st movement, the opening and coda of the second with its slow march reminiscent of the 2nd movement of the 6th symphony, and that delicate waltz subject in the 3rd movement for example.) In this work I believe that Bax is looking over his shoulder at a time forever lost. Heretical as it may sound, I'm surprised that Heifetz didn't "get" the piece, seeing that he played so well the "After sundown" movement from Cyril Scott's Tallahassee Suite, which is of similar emotion.

RA: Are there any sections of the VC that you especially love?

JMW: The Scherzo of the 1st movement, which is a skillful metamorphosis of the opening theme, again the opening of the 2nd movement with strings and harp. The E major statement of the waltz theme and the pounding tenor drums in the 3rd movement.

RA: What was the condition of the score? I understand there are many errors.  Did you discover these?

JMW: There were errors. We did not find them to be as bothersome as the general state of the score and parts. Though the violin/piano reduction got the usual fine setting from Chappell, the score and parts were handwritten. Ugh! The score bore an inscription to Heifetz and had the entire 3rd movement, with the cut indicated. In the piano reduction there is no notice that the movement has had a significant passage deleted. I did not know of the deletion or the dedication until I received the score. We performed it with the cut. I believe the cut is not a good one, as some transitions don't seem to "sit" right.

RA: Can you talk about the details of your performance.

JMW: I performed the Bax violin concerto on January 28, 1990 in Jordan Hall, which is located in the New England Conservatory in Boston, MA. It was one of the absolutely finest small halls anywhere, the past tense being employed because they have since remodeled it. The orchestra was the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston, which was augmented for the concerto. Pro Arte (as they are locally known) is one of a very few cooperative orchestras in the US, and its operations are (save for some administrative ones) completely run by the orchestra's musician members. It has had a commitment to new music since its inception. I was not a member of the orchestra, but I approached them with the idea of doing the Bax and of recording it. (This was well before the Chandos recording appeared.) I also suggested contacting the Bax trust to inquire about financial support. The trust kindly contributed $5000 towards the performance. The conductor was to have been Bramwell Tovey, an Englishman who is well known for G. & S. performances and who had conducted Pro Artes successfully before. (His initial appearance with them included Finzi's Cello Concerto with Raphael Wallfisch.) He canceled rather suddenly and a new conductor, Jeffery Rink, was hastily engaged. Jeffery was at that time the conductor of two local groups, the New England Philharmonic and the Chorus Pro Musica. The entire program was changed to accommodate Jeff and I went to his home to teach him the concerto as he had heard no Bax before. I think he did very well under inauspicious circumstances. This was one of the highpoints of my career, as I shall never forget the sound of the orchestra when they fired up the opening of the concerto. Truly, no recording can suffice to convey the sound- world of Bax which is why he must be performed live and often.

RA: As I'm sure Bax is an unfamiliar name to most of your colleagues, did you encounter any resistance to getting the work played?

JMW: Not among the musicians, but among a couple of the orchestra's committee members. It was a textbook example of Slonimsky's "non-acceptance of the unfamiliar." Sadly, today there are many musicians who labor under the philosophically false premise that if they haven't heard of it, it can't be any good.

RA: What was the response from the conductor and orchestra? Did they enjoy it?

JMW: The conductor was very enthusiastic and he told me that he played the tape to many colleagues who echoed his high opinion of the work. If you know anything about the orchestral musician's psyche, you may know that they are a rather unreliable arbiter of a work's ultimate merit. More wind and brass players from the orchestra spoke well of it to me than string players.

RA: From the tape I've heard, the audience erupts in very enthusiastic applause after your performance. What kind of reactions did you receive from friends, colleagues, critics etc. in regard to the VC and Bax in general?

JMW: You said it, the crowd loved it. I got very favorable comments from most of my colleagues in the house that night and from ones that subsequently heard it. The critic said that it "sounded like a cow NOT looking over a fence," parodying the famous critical aphorism leveled at Vaughan-Williams.

RA: You've also performed the Bax 3rd Violin Sonata? How did that performance come about?

JMW: I found the music in a local library and decided that I had to do it. It was too good to just sit there. It is a very good example of Bax' mature "wild nature" style. The 2nd movement bears a certain kinship to the First symphony in its clustered chords. The world can always use another good violin sonata.

RA: What is your opinion of Bax's chamber music and in particular the three violin sonatas?

JMW: There's a lot of his chamber music that I haven't heard yet. I really like the piano quintet, but I'm still waiting for a satisfying tape of it. I love the Nonet. The 1st String Quartet is atypical. The opening of the Elegiac Trio sends me to heaven every time. The Oboe Quintet is one of his best works. If you've ever seen the score, you know that it is not nearly as simple as it sounds. It is written rhythmically in a highly wrought manner, to help realize the ethnic idiom. I haven't heard the 3rd Quartet or the larger mixed ensemble works. The violin sonatas; #1 is romantic and sounds a little old-fashioned. Number 2 is more of a transitional piece as it has some of the sentimentality of the 1st Sonata and a hint of the rough hewn landscapes of the 3rd. It has a powerful impulsive impact. The 3rd is mature Bax. The episode in the 1st movement where the violin plays the 3rd subject in harmonics over piano arpeggios is written without time signature and it is so evocative. The 2nd movement is a great wild Celtic dance. The Bax dichotomy; the hard and the lyrical side by side.

RA: Are there any other Bax works for Violin you are eager to play?

JMW: There aren't that many works for violin outside of the sonatas and concerto. The Legend is good. I'd like to record them all.

RA: You are also a conductor and you recently performed Walton's 2nd Symphony with the Cleveland Institute Orchestra. I understand your original intention had been to perform the Bax's Second Symphony but that idea was turned down. Why was that?

JMW: My teacher at the Institute is a wonderful conductor and musician named Carl Topilow. He is very interested in and supportive of English music (he let me do the Delius Two Pieces for Small Orchestra, which he hates!), as well as giving his students remarkable flexibility in choosing recital repertoire. I showed him the score to the Bax 2nd symphony for consideration as my major recital work last fall. He felt that though the students are as virtuosic as any professional players, their relative inexperience would require more time than we had available for proper rehearsal of such an unfamiliar style of composition. I thought I could do it within those constraints but he suggested Walton's 2nd symphony (a work which he frankly knew far better) and I considered this a good compromise.

RA: It is very difficult for conductors such as Vernon Handley, Myer Fredman , David Lloyd-Jones to be able to perform Bax's music in Great Britain. Do you foresee similar problem conducting Bax's music in United States?

JMW: It is always difficult to do something different because frequently, those in management are not musicians, the agents are not musicians and the boards are composed of well-meaning laymen who are craven. This is the norm in the business today. Many times it is not that boards are unwilling to program a work which may be unfamiliar to the general public, it is that they are themselves unfamiliar with a certain work and are unwilling to trust the conductor's judgment. When a boardmember has a work in his ear, even if that work has not been heard in 60 years, it is far easier to get it done. We are in a strange place in this modern music world when the primary decisions about basic musical things are being made by those who are not musicians and do not really know music.

RA: What is your opinion of the Bax symphonies overall? How do they compare with those of his contemporaries both in UK and in other countries?

JMW: I could talk about this all day. Britain is blessed with great symphonists. RVW, Benjamin Frankel, Elgar, Walton; there are others. Bax's works are among the finest of these, and when he is at his best, I think he is The Best. His canon is in my opinion the most consistent among the English composers that wrote more than two. Bax's idiom is so recognizable, his harmony so novel, and his tunes so distinctive that I consider him to be a model for other composers as to how to find and use one's own voice. In the States a parallel could be made with symphonists such as Paul Creston and Howard Hanson, two composers who pursued a similarly subjective vision in writing which later led to a similar backlash against their music. In Germany, Karl Amadeus Hartmann comes to mind. Though the music is very different there is a shared singularity of purpose and integrity. In France, I think of the iconoclastic Dutilleux's symphonies as being on a similar level. Also the Swede Hilding Rosenberg.

RA: Do you have any particular favorites among the seven? Why are they your favorites?

JMW: I love the 2nd, 5th and 6th particularly for that sense of aloneness within vastness and for that hard edged wildness which suggests, (impolitic as it may sound) men's music, the music of solitary adventure. That climax with organ in the 3rd movement of the Second never fails to render me nearly faint. In the 5th Symphony, 2nd movement, that moment Bax wrote about, something about walking along land and suddenly coming upon the vast sea. It's a great chord there, a B flat 13. (Isn't that a big mistake in the Chandos CD, the misplaced snare drum?) And of course the sublime codas to the last movements of the 6th and 7th.

RA: Do you agree with the frequently stated criticism that Bax's symphonies are rhapsodic and loosely structured? Why do you think Bax is accused of this so often?

JMW: I do not. Though this not the space for a scholarly explanation, through my own perusals of his scores, I think that he is quite tight structurally. Like any music, his requires acquaintance to be understood and that very acquaintance is what the music has been largely denied. Recordings help of course, but they are no substitute for a live show. As far as a reason for his being accused of being excessively rhapsodic, I believe that it is because he rarely repeats a figure verbatim. It requires good concentration to follow a motive through its various guises and the trip can pose difficulties. I can always discern a form in Bax's music, though he often puts his own spin on them. So what? Look at Mahler's 5th symphony, 1st movement, and its waywardness. What form is that? That waywardness renders it no less great. Sometime we must accept a work of art on its own terms rather than attempting to make it fit a pre-conceived model.

RA: Symphonies No. 4 and 7 are often cited as the weakest in the cycle. Do you agree?

JMW: I don't think that weak is the proper adjective to describe them. They are certainly less intense than nos.1,2,5, & 6.  The 4th is so joyously free of angst and brooding, and the 7th is so clearly a loving and weary farewell. I don't think we can quantify them as weaker; they trod different ground. I enjoy both of them immensely, though I think we may condemn the 4th & 7th for not being the 2nd & 6th. That's like saying that Mahler's 4th and 7th are worse because they are not the 3rd and 9th.

RA: What are your thoughts on Bax's many tone poems? Are there any that you are particularly fond of?

JMW: Some of them contain the absolute best Bax. Generally I prefer the later ones rather than the earlier, more impressionistic/romantic ones, such as the Garden of Fand. I do like November Woods (especially the rapturous middle D major section), and the first two Northern Ballads are among my very favorite Bax works. I think you'd have to be dead if you don't respond to the "Woodland Love" movement from Spring Fire. There are some tone poems I have not heard such as the Overture to Adventure.

RA: Which Bax works are you most anxious to conduct?

JMW: Without doubt the 2nd, 5th and 6th symphonies, Northern Ballad #2, Walsinghame, Spring Fire. I want to do my own cycle of symphonies someday. I truly think those works can benefit from multiple perspectives.

RA:  What are you opinions of Bax's other concertos including Winter Legends and Symphonic Variations?

JMW: I love them both. Symphonic Variations could be a repertory piece and an audience favorite if it were given a chance. It is so consistently beautiful, with many memorable passages. Lewis Foreman is right about the ending not being triumphant and perhaps that has caused some to forego the work. I think it was probably a bad idea to have given Harriet Cohen exclusive rights to it (and Winter Legends), because it could have been taken up by other, more compelling pianists. Winter legends is a Bax masterwork too, it is just a little harder to approach for the casual listener. I love the 2nd movement, that magical horn solo G-E-F-C-A flat. The piece is like a pilgrimage. I'm totally wrung out at the end.

RA: Do you think Bax has the potential to become a more popular composer? If so, which works do you think have the most potential to become popular?

JMW: Absolutely. The Violin Concerto is a winner for sure. The 1st, 2nd, 6th & 7th symphonies, November Woods, Tintagel and the Garden of Fand would certainly be popular if they are programmed often enough. Once his voice has become better known it will be easier to put on works like the Second Northern Ballad. Therein lies the crux of the issue. Bax needs exposure of the sort that makes a piece a part of the public consciousness, and he has not had that. For example, Serge Koussevitsky, the music director of the Boston Symphony from the '20's to the '50's programmed Stravinsky's Firebird Suite in 1925. And again in 1926, '27, '28, '29, 1930, '32, '33, '34, 1941, '42, and '45. The BSO's guest conductors programmed it more times. That's how you make a piece part of the repertory. Interestingly, I saw Koussevitsky's scores to Bax's 1st and 2nd symphonies in the BSO library. They had the dates of his performances marked on them. There were 3 dates for the 1st and around 6 for the 2nd. That's simply not enough to acquaint audiences with a new work. Bax must be performed live and often if he is to attain any lasting popularity.

RA: Do you know of many other American musicians/colleagues who have the same enthusiasm for Bax that you do?

JMW: I know a few who love his music. Most musicians don't know it and are not curious about it. (Curiosity is a trait not instilled in music schools here.) Whenever I play some for a novitiate colleague, they rarely fail to be impressed by the music. A common question is "why haven't I heard of this guy?"

RA: I know you are also fond of Frank Bridge's music. I see Bridge and Bax as two renegades and I don't think it's an accident they are two of the most underrated British composers in comparison to their overall achievement. What attracts you to Bridge's music?

JMW: You are right about them both. They are renegades in that they both exhibit some very un-British characteristics. With Bax it is his tendency towards rhetoric, his huge orchestrations and resulting thick texturesand his rejection of the stereotypically English pastoral school. With Bridge it is his contemporary outlook and openness to alternative compositional styles. Bridge is truly one of the greatest of English composers. His best works can stand comparison with any 20th century composer. Bridge is emotional (like Bax) in a very direct way. His music has the strength of one who has taken some hits and is still standing. Where Bax' music suggests anomie, Bridge's music suggests resistance.

RA: Bax is often associated with Moeran. Have you considered playing his glorious Violin concerto?

JMW: They don't have much in common in my opinion. The Moeran concerto is wonderful, I really love it. I've been trying to talk orchestras into doing it for years. It has a lovely, soft ending, which is sometimes a problem for American audiences.

RA: Are there any other British composers that you are especially fond of and would love to perform as conductor or violinist?

JMW: Howells, Delius, Lambert, Cyril Scott, Arnold, Frankel, Holbrooke, Brian, William Wordsworth, Bliss, Elgar. They have all written something that I would play or conduct given the opportunity.

RA: I think among American composers: Paul Creston, David Diamond, Bernard Herrmann and Howard Hanson have some stylistic similarities to Bax. This may have as much to do with lushness in orchestration as anything else, but there is something otherworldly, mythical, perhaps Sibelian about their music. Do you sense this as well?

JMW: True. If you listen to Hanson's 5th Symphony or Creston's 2nd,  you can hear clearly the Sibelian influence. Sibelius left a fruitful path for others to tred.

RA: What are your future plans?

JMW: I feel like I should put my phone number here along with a big sign that says "AVAILABLE." I want to be an assistant to someone who's well established, as that is the best way to learn the conducting business. And make no mistake, it is a business. I'll continue to compose as time allows and I will continue to play and conduct every chance I get. The Samuel Coleridge-Taylor CD will be out in a few months and I'm talking with the same company about a Jongen CD.

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