DETROIT - A conductor based in the Detroit area was up for a Grammy Award last week. It was Leonard Slatkin, the high-powered new music director of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, right? Wrong.
It was John McLaughlin Williams, a 51-year-old native of North Carolina, who lives in Livonia, Mich., with his wife and daughter. Don’t feel bad about not recognizing him. He’s also unknown among the classical music elite - in spite of recording 10 CDs, winning a Grammy in 2007 for a performance by French modernist Olivier Messiaen and earning ringing endorsements from producers, musicians and critics.
“The fact that John doesn’t have an orchestra of his own is a disgrace,” says musicologist, critic and producer Walter Simmons, who employed Williams on CDs devoted to the little-known American romantic Nicolas Flagello.
How can a conductor as obviously talented as Williams remain hidden in plain sight? The answer has to do with his relatively late start and the circuitous path he took to the podium, the unusual repertoire he has chosen to champion and the vagaries of a business in which the best musicians don’t always get the best gigs.
“It’s really been a guerilla campaign,” says Williams. “There’s a chute that most conductors go through, but I came in through the side door. I missed certain contacts that help get to that next level. It’s not that I won’t get there, but it definitely takes more work.”
In a sparsely furnished rented home that’s been his base for the last 20 months, Williams talks about his life and career. The family relocated to Livonia from Springfield, Ill., after his wife, Ann Lampkin, now director of the office of diversity and multicultural affairs at Madonna University and a native Detroiter, took a job at the school.
Williams speaks in an even pitch that picks up steam as he latches onto his favorite subject: unjustly neglected composers, especially Americans. Though his passion is conducting, Williams is also an accomplished violinist and a pianist. On an upcoming CD of viola music by 20th-century American Quincy Porter, McLaughlin conducts a concerto and plays violin, piano and harpsichord on other works.
“He’s the real deal,” says Victor Ledin, who runs a highly respected classical music production and consulting company with his wife, Marina. “Musicians like him because he understands their perspective and has command of the score, and as a conductor he truly understands how to mold a whole performance.”
Williams’ Grammy nomination this year was in the soloist and orchestra category. The CD, issued on the small domestic label Artek, contains 20th-century violin concertos by Benjamin Lees and Ernest Bloch, with soloist Elmar Oliveira. It was recorded with the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in Kiev.
If Williams had won, he might have liberated the Grammy he already owns, which is trapped in its original box on top of a messy bookshelf . “If I win two, I’ll start to display them,” he says. “You win one, people believe it’s a fluke.”
Raised in Washington, D.C., Williams started violin at 10 and was gifted enough to solo with the National Symphony at 14. But the most telling nugget of his youth is that he read “Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians” cover to cover by age 15. The book is 3 inches thick, 2,000 pages long and could double as a weapon of mass destruction if dropped from a balcony. Nobody reads it cover to cover.
“It always impressed me that there were all these composers described as eminent, wonderful, great and important, but I wasn’t hearing them in any of the concerts I was going to or any of the music I was playing,” he says. “I love standard repertoire but there’s all this other music that’s equally great and never gets played.”
Williams studied violin at Boston University and the New England Conservatory, but spent nearly 20 years freelancing, working with the Boston Symphony, Boston Pops and even soloing with the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra. He spent a season with the Houston Symphony and a season as concertmaster (first violinist) with the Virginia Symphony.
But he finally realized that the only way he could play the music that most excited him would be if he could call the tune: He had to conduct.
So he enrolled at the Cleveland Institute of Music to study the craft. He launched his postgraduate career by conducting music by the pioneering 20th-century African-American composer William Grant Still at a conference. A label owner heard Williams and recommended him to the Ledins - who were producing the burgeoning American Classics series on the Naxos label.
“I was invited to pitch projects, and here’s where ‘Baker’s’ came into play,” says Williams. “I could look at what had been recorded and see the holes.”
As traditional major labels curtailed activities in the late ‘90s, Naxos was making hay by releasing inexpensive CDs of fresh repertoire and keeping costs low by avoiding star performers. That’s how Williams got paired with a Ukrainian orchestra and why, once he proved his mettle, he keeps getting called for recordings.
Still, Williams’ guest conducting opportunities have been limited. He recently signed with a manager, but his slim performance resume and the lack of a gilded teacher or champion are disadvantages. So are his non-mainstream profile and the classical world’s bias toward European conductors. Since African-American conductors are still rare, it’s natural to ask if skin color has been an impediment.
“How people react to me in a racial sense is completely subjective and something they keep to themselves,” Williams says. “Not that I suspect any skullduggery. I don’t, but you never can tell. I’ve had older black conductors tell me their careers were completely marked out by race, and I believe that’s true. But they’re older, and things have changed in great ways in this country.”
Williams might be getting closer to his goal of landing an orchestral post. He’s been a finalist for music director jobs at smaller orchestras and assistant jobs at larger ones. But to make a living he still has to take work as a violinist. “It’s a tough business,” he says.
“You never know when your number will come up. Perhaps it never will. You have to be in this for the long haul, and indeed I am.”
WILLIAMS ON CD
John McLaughlin Williams has made 10 CDs as a conductor, most of neglected 20th-century American music written in tonal or neo-romantic styles. Here are three fine introductions to his work:
A lovingly conducted survey of orchestral music by Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937) revived interest in an American late-romantic composer with a homegrown melodic perfume (Naxos).
“Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Vol. 6” includes sharply etched readings of 20th-Century French modernist Olivier Messiaen’s “Exotic Birds” (with pianist Angelin Chang) and Dmitri Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. Williams won a Grammy in 2007 for the Messiaen performance (TNC/Cambria).
A disc of two symphonic masses (no chorus) by Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) and Arnold Rosner (born 1945), spotlights Americans working in conservative tonal idioms in an era when high modernist complexity held sway (Naxos).
Here are the rest of John McLaughlin Williams’ recordings as a conductor:
A CD of 20th-century violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees with soloist Elmar Oliveira was nominated for a Grammy last week (Artek). The album lost to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and violinist Hilary Hahn’s violin concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius.
Two additional CDs feature the music of American Nicolas Flagello (Naxos and Artek).
Two CDs on Naxos of music by American George Frederick McKay (1899-1970).
Single discs devoted to Americans John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) and contemporary Deon Nielsen Price (Naxos and Cambria).