Conductor John MacLaughlin Williams is interviewed by Rob Barnett
RB: Do tell us something about yourself and your earliest musical experiences.
JMW: I began violin in the public schools of Washington, D.C. Before that I heard much music in my home, both recorded and played by my parents.
What would you count as your five leading formative musical experiences.
JMW: Easily hearing my parents playing the piano works of Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms. They were not professional, but very accomplished. While very young my mom took me to hear James DePriest conduct Bruckner 4 with the National Symphony. Overwhelming. Later I was in the D.C. Youth Orchestra, which had a very forward-looking conductor, Lyn McLain. He programmed much music which is still with me: Delius, Ulysses Kay, many other moderns. While attending the New England Conservatory I devoured their fantastic library. It was there I first saw a score of Hadley's. Of course learning to play the piano opened up a universe for me. For an instrumentalist to be able to perform on piano is completely liberating.
How did your connection with Naxos come about.
JMW: Judith Ann Still (daughter of composer William Grant Still) invited me to Arizona to conduct. She introduced me to Lance Bowling, founder of Cambria Recordings. He knew Victor and Marina Ledin, who are the series producers of Naxos American Classics. I pitched some things in which I thought they might be interested.
Any special difficulties working with the Ukraine SO.
JMW: My first trip over coincided with the hottest summer in 100 years. It was the end of the season and mine was the very last project they had to do. If you know anything about the minds of orchestral musicians you can infer what followed. They were extremely welcoming to me though. It was just hot, they were tired, and the McKay material was in horrendous shape.
How would you characterise their sound.
JMW: The NSOU has a very continental sound to my ears. The brass are quite versatile, sometimes being bright like the Chicago or very mellow as demanded. And they have an absolutely spectacular first horn player, Valentin Stepanovich. World class! I want to invite him to solo in the states. The principal oboe has a very fine sound, different from the American style, but definitely not the Russian nasal sound. The strings are not quite as warm as US orchestras, but you can work with them to produce a likeness if you know string technique.
What makes it distinctive.
JMW: For orchestras in that neck of the woods, their incisiveness singles them out.
I have the impression that national sounds are being ironed out by the universality of the CD. Do all orchestras now sound the same.
JMW: I agree that a certain homogeneity is overtaking orchestras, particularly US orchestras. But I don't think it is because of the CD. It is because of modern teaching, which emphasizes technical perfection above all, so students just practice. They don't live, and they don't learn from living anymore. The teachers are under pressure to recruit and produce great students, so teaching is now as industrialized as manufacturing automobiles.
How do they compare with any other orchestras you have conducted.
JMW: They are quite fast, and they really (I mean REALLY) care about music.
Maestro Kuchar is, I think, the permanent conductor of the Ukraine SO - what mark has he left on the orchestra.
JMW: Ted really brought them into prominence as a recording orchestra. He moulded the sound so as to widen their aural appeal through their recordings. When you listen to NSOU you don't say "oh that's a Russian or Soviet orchestra". And their ability to absorb quickly spilled over into their concert performances. Ted did all that.
Are any of the rare music pieces recorded with the NSOU also broadcast on Ukraine Radio or given in concert in the Ukraine.
JMW: I'm not sure if Ted has, but when we recorded Hadley's "The Ocean" the orchestra was so struck with the work that the radio guy insisted we assemble a rough edit to be broadcast while I was there. Which we did.
Any language difficulties in working with the orchestra.
JMW: I don't speak Ukrainian, though I'm studying it now. There was someone who spoke some English, but mostly I tried to show as much as possible and not talk if possible. Ted is of Ukrainian descent and speaks Ukrainian fluently.
Do tell our readers something about McKay - biographical background.
JMW: George Frederick McKay was an American Westerner. Being from the West completely infused his life and music. He wwas the recipient of the first music degree ever conferred by the Eastman School, where he studied with Selim Palmgren and Christian Sinding. His music has a rough edge to it, much like Roy Harris, but McKay was more of a tunesmith. He was not much concerned with orchestral rhetoric (the Evocation Symphony being an exception) but more with conveying the spirit of the Western region of the USA and the mind-states that are inspired by the land and its inhabitants. Particularly the Washington state area, with its unusual geography. If you were to go to Puget Sound, you would literally see, hear and smell the music of Harbor Narrative. He was much concerned with education, and wrote many works for youth, the later ones of which do not compromise in idiom.
Are there any other pieces by McKay you would want to record.
JMW: Symphony Miniature #2, the Sinfoniettas, violin and cello concertos. There's lots of good stuff.
Carpenter is a favourite of mine. How did you come to choose him for the project or did Naxos choose?
JMW: He is one of America's greatest composers. And nobody knows! It's a crime that he isn't taught in our music schools. Easily as good and as American as Copland, Gershwin and Ives. His reputation still suffers (like Hadley's) from received notions put forth by academic critics.
JMW: Carpenter was born into a well-to-do family. He studied at Harvard and went into the family business, all the while studying and composing. His family being prominent meant he had a slightly easier time of making contacts and getting his works played. Which of course completely pissed off Ives and Ruggles, both of whom spare no invective when talking of him with each other and others. Until he retired Carpenter balanced business and music, remaining very productive. His style incorporates most modern tendencies (jazz, dissonant harmony), though he uses them in his own idiosyncratic ways. And he was one of the greatest orchestrators.
Will there be a recording of the Carpenter symphonies?
JMW: I recorded Carpenter's two Symphonies along with his famous Adventures in a Perambulator suite. (That's the piece which really got Ives's goat!) The "first" symphony is actually a radical revision of his true 1st symphony, titled "Sermons in Stones", which is about an hour long. The result of the revision is two very different and unique works.
Were there any difficulties with getting performing materials?
JMW: No. Both Hadley and Schirmer are handled by G. Schirmer.
Were they from the Fleisher library
JMW: No, except for Hadley's "The Ocean", which was published by Birchard. Birchard is now handled by Warner Bros., so we had to get permission for recording from them and then get materials from the Fleisher collection.
Do you have to pay any royalties for their use
JMW: Yes, there are fees and royalties due for all legitimate recordings.
Has there been any contact with the Carpenter family.
JMW: As yet no, but I intend to contact them soon.
Will you be moving on to do neglected pieces by other US composers: eg Edward Burlingame Hill, Arthur Farwell and Louis Coerne
JMW: I would love to do Hill; there's a lot there that is worthy. I've just read about Coerne (500 works!). I hope to do Cadman, Mennin, Creston, Lamar Stringfield, Loeffler, Hadley's choral works. I have a long wish list.
Did you ever hear Karl Krueger's recordings of this genre on the LPs issued by Society for the Promotion of the American Musical heritage?
JMW: Of course. Krueger pointed the way when it was unfashionable. His recordings still hold up.
Will you be doing any recordings for the Marco Polo label.
JMW: At this point, no. I'd like to.
Which ten unrecorded American works would you nominate for recording.
Hadley's Resurgam, Ode To Music,
Cadman's opera Shanewis,
Benjamin Lees' Violin Concerto,
McKay's Cello Concerto, Pioneer Epic,
List the ten works from other genres you would recommend for recording.
Schreker: Der Schmied von Gent, Der Singende Teufel,
Weigl: Symphony #2, all of his string quartets,
Joseph Marx: Eine HerbstSinfonie, all of his orchestral works (Please let me, let me!!),
Korngold: Die Stumme Serenade,
Jongen: piano quartet, string quartet works and orchestral,
Catoire: chamber works
Toch: Piano Concertos
Rob Barnett May 2001
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