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Music Last Updated: May 30th, 2008 - 11:49:13

The Other Grammy Winner
By Esther Iveremó Contributing Critic
Feb 23, 2007, 13:16

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John McLaughlin Williams
John McLaughlin Williams won a Grammy for his conducting of Messiaen: Oiseaux Exotiques (Exotic Birds) by the Cleveland Chamber Symphony

Iverem: You won a Grammy in the classical music category for Best Instrumental Soloist with Orchestra, yet most Blacks, or music lovers in general, don't know you. Does that anonymity bother you? How have you handled that?

Williams: On a personal level I am not annoyed by a lack of awareness of my pursuits. Rather, I am saddened that the classical arts generally, and classical music specifically, do not command more significant attention from African Americans. Historically, in the Black community this was not always the case. I handle it by making a concerted and ceaseless effort to inform audiences of the timeless contributions by Black composers from the 18th century to today through performances and lectures. Strictly speaking, Iím not anonymous, thanks to the stack of recordings Iíve done on a major classical label with worldwide distribution. Because of that, many more people have heard of me than have ever actually seen me in concert. There is a large and vital community of classical music lovers who are aware of the accomplishments of musicians of color, but for reasons too lengthy to recount here, this remains largely invisible to the African American community.

Iverem: What led you to classical music and what is your instrument(s)?

Williams: My parents played piano very well, and they were extremely well versed in classical, jazz and popular music. They were part of a generation of African Americans (as their parents were before them) that considered this to be an integral part of a general education, an asset that would help ensure intellectual acuity and, ultimately, financial prosperity. They made sure that I heard copious amounts of Bach, Beethoven and Chopin (along with Bud Powell and the Supremes) before I began violin lessons in the public schools of Washington D.C. That was in the days when public schools had string education programs, most of which have since disappeared from the curriculum. Later I began to play the piano, a skill that has proven indispensable to effective orchestral conducting.

Iverem: What is it like to be a classical musician today? What is your life like?

Williams: While it is thrilling to be involved with some of the worldís greatest musical thoughts on a daily basis, there is a hermetic feeling of being not quite in the mainstream that is greater now than ever before. (This was not always the case, but things began to change in the late 1960ís. The reasons for this are myriad, and warrant a discussion of their own.) More specifically, my time is spent studying scores for performance, researching composers, tracing recondite works and manuscripts, coming up with programming ideas for new recordings, making recordings and playing concerts. There is quite a bit of travel involved. I also still perform as a violinist.

Iverem: Do you find yourself in primarily White environments?

Williams: Yes, but could one expect anything else? For some time weíve had an intra-cultural tendency to scoff at or reject outright things perceived as being of interest only to Whites. However, an interesting phenomenon is that quite a few young African Americans study music via youth orchestras or programs like Project STEP in Boston, Massachusetts, yet most decide against pursuing it professionally. The result is a paucity of Blacks among the ranks of professional classical musicians.

Iverem: Are you able to pursue your art full time? Where do you work as a musician?

Williams: Itís not just a job, itís a lifestyle. There is so much preparation involved that it tends to permeate most aspects of oneís life. You literally eat, drink and breathe music. As I said, thereís a lot of travel involved, and I am often called to work in disparate locales. In the last two months Iíve been in Boston, Decatur, Cleveland, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Iverem: Tell us about the work that earned you your Grammy nomination. Describe it for us, what is means to you, how you went about creating it?

Williams: I was nominated in a performance category for my recording of a work by the French composer Olivier Messiaen, entitled LíOiseau Exotiques (Exotic Birds). Messiaen was one of the greatest composers of the last century and his work often centered around birdcalls, which he would notate laboriously by hand. The piece is made up entirely of the calls of North American birds, these calls being played by an orchestra of woodwind, brass and percussion players along with a piano concertante solo. The resulting sound has an incredibly multi-layered texture, akin to a wild, open air aviary. Itís a challenging work for the audience, but itís also a striking, invigorating experience.

Iverem: What does the Grammy nomination and win do for your career?

Williams: Well, people will actually return your phone calls! This recognition does help in that you are now seen in a different light. Itís as if one has joined some august company, since your average Grammy winner is a lot more established in the public eye than I am at present. Like so many businesses, perception is everything, and receiving this recognition is a big step towards opening important doors that can lead to top-level opportunities.

Iverem: What is next for you professionally?

Williams: I will be back in Kiev, Ukraine for another series of recordings with the National Radio Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine. Iíve already done six or seven CDs with them. The most recent two will be released within the next few months. Thereís also a Ukrainian/American Music Festival thatís happening in the spring, of which I will be a part. I was recently appointed assistant conductor of the Britt Festtival, so Iíll be out in Oregon over the summer. Iím also finishing up a four-part series on Black composers for National Public Radio in Illinois. The first part has already been broadcast.

Esther Iverem is the founder of and author of the forthcoming book We Gotta Have It: Twenty Years of Seeing Black at the Movies, 1986-2006 (Thunderís Mouth Press, April 2007).

© Copyright 2006

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