Getting into the Classical Music World through the Side Door

Mark Stryker of the Detroit Free Press wrote an interesting article about John McLaughlin Williams (pictured), a 51-year-old native of North Carolina, but who now lives in Livonia with his wife and daughter. He is a relative unknown in the Classical Music World even though he won the Grammy last year for a performance of Olivier Messiaen and nominated for a Grammy this year for the 20th-Century violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees with soloist Elmar Oliveira.

The interesting point of this story is Mr Williams didn't make it into the Classical Music World in the normal route; he started later and rather came in the side door.

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.

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 résumé 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.

It's articles like this that give me hope. I am older than your typical composition student. Nico Muhly (b.1981), who studied at Juilliard and then with Philip Glass and already receiving high praise for his film scores, and Jay Greenberg (b.1991) who is the 17 year old prodigy at Juilliard, a record contract with Sony BMG Masterworks and already had a violin concerto premiered by Joshua Bell, are both quality composers who, at an early age, were greated with open arms by the Classical Music World (both have Wikipedia entries). Getting recognition at their level is going to be much more difficult for me because I don't have the prodigy angle, or the association with noted, established composers.

But... comments like "I listened to your sound files and I must say I'm impressed. There's absolutely no reason why you shouldn't become an excellent composer," by Rowy van Hest give me the feeling like it is possible to succeed. "I can't think of any composer who, as a fresh Bachelor, wrote at a higher level than you are doing. So, it's not the lack of talent, not the lack of education that will stop you from becoming a professional composer."

Ok, maybe I am coming at the Classical Music World by the side door, but I'm not the only one attempting it. And, as is evidenced by John McLaughlin Williams, it is possible. I don't know that I'll ever win a Grammy (or an Oscar), but I come from a long line of long lived so I figure I have at least another 50 years of composing. Just keep writing and it will happen!

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