Conductor and violinist John McLaughlin Williams has a question for advocates of deblinding auditions: “Why hold an audition at all? Why not just send in a head shot?”
Williams’s contempt for the racialization of classical music is not the only thing that sets him apart from today’s classical music establishment. His voracious musical curiosity has led him on a quest that few other conductors have dared.
Ever since he was a child growing up in Washington, D.C., Williams has been fascinated by the vagaries of musical fate. He would pore over a music encyclopedia, reading about once-popular composers who have since been forgotten. Why don’t we hear them now? he wondered. At the New England Conservatory of Music, he haunted the library stacks, perusing scores that are no longer played.
That passion for the musical unknown resulted in an important project of historical reclamation. Williams has recorded a group of neo-Romantic American composers from the first half of the twentieth century, including Nicolas Flagello, Arnold Rosner, George Frederick McKay, and Henry Kimball Hadley, the latter of whom Williams calls the first rock star of classical music. These once-prominent musicians had fallen into near-total oblivion, despite constituting a key chapter in American musical history. Their compositional style violated the emerging modernist orthodoxies, Williams says. “They were hated by a younger generation of composers who fled to the university and wrote books.”
Williams’s discography alone distinguishes him from his colleagues. Most conductors, Williams observes, have been “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.” Performing the 217th Beethoven or Mahler symphony cycle is a much surer commercial bet.
Orchestral musicians are often little better than conductors in their musical conservatism. Many “labor under the philosophically false premise that if they haven’t heard of [a work] it can’t be any good,” Williams jokes.
An additional fact about Williams’s career is noteworthy in the current moment: the majority of the composers whom he has championed have been white. His recordings—featuring a black conductor leading the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine in the performance of obscure American works—epitomize the universality of classical music and constitute a profound rebuttal to the constricting vision of today’s race arbiters.
“I never gave race any thought and never used it in my career,” Williams says. As a violin student, he had as his role models Jascha Heifetz, Nathan Milstein, and Zino Francescatti. His colorblindness was an inheritance from his family. His parents—both accomplished pianists—met as music students at Howard University. Williams grew up hearing Chopin nocturnes and études, Bach partitas, and Beethoven sonatas on the family piano. Did it matter that those composers were white males? “It never came up,” he answers. Williams’s parents also played William Grant Still, Ulysses Kay, and other black composers. But they acknowledged the greatness of the musical canon. “It’s why we play these things. All great ideas that have ever been born in the world were meant for everyone. It’s the reason I have a car and can get vaccines.”
The conductor’s family epitomizes the tradition of black bourgeois striving so courageously maintained in the face of widespread discrimination. His maternal grandfather, John C. McLaughlin, returned severely injured from military service in France during World War I. Though McLaughlin had not finished grammar school, he went on to earn a Master of Science degree in agricultural economics from Cornell University. He became a dean at the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical College, while serving on dozens of philanthropic boards. Williams’s paternal grandfather was one of the few black officials in the Defense Department. Both sets of grandparents passed on a love of classical music to their children. Williams’s father aspired to a career as a classical pianist but was blocked by prejudice. Though he rarely talked about his experiences with discrimination, Williams says, they took a deep psychic toll on him, leading to depression and drink.
Yet despite this personal tragedy, Williams is able to distinguish the present from the past. The classical music industry was “racist in the day but not now by any means,” he says. Though he disagrees with the reflexive charge of discrimination, he understands its origin: history makes it almost impossible for “black people to believe that any reverse in fortune or progress is not rooted in racism, because in the past, it always, always was.”
Williams began his classical music career as a violinist, playing pickup gigs in the string sections of prominent orchestras and occasionally soloing.
Though Williams landed a coveted first violin seat at the Virginia Symphony, the repetitiousness of the repertoire wore on him. The only way he could build on his passion for lost music was to be at the front of the orchestra, not within it, he concluded. He walked away from his concertmaster position and in 1994 enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Music’s conducting program. Happily, around that time, the Naxos record label had launched an American Classics series, featuring forgotten American works. Williams’s encyclopedic knowledge of that repertoire was a perfect fit, and he began rolling out a series of recordings with the label.
His choice of music as a violin soloist has been as iconoclastic as his conducting repertoire. British composer Sir Arnold Bax is rarely, if ever, performed in the United States. Williams encountered some of Bax’s symphonic scores during his library sleuthing. They were a “revelation,” he says: “Strong, biting, hard-edged music of struggle, yet tinged with the wistfulness of one who has known loss. I was hooked.” Ever the contrarian, Williams became “really interested” in Bax’s violin concerto after reading a negative assessment of the work. He tracked down the music in the Library of Congress and gave the concerto its U.S. premiere in 1990—52 years after it was written—soloing on the violin with the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Williams’s masterful performance, available on YouTube, digs into Bax’s complicated syncopations with rhythmic flair and suavely shapes the concerto’s melodic lines.
Williams is scathing about the introduction of identity politics into music. “It will be the death of quality,” he warns. “It will breed resentment from musicians who have worked all their lives to achieve perfection.” An orchestra’s primary reasonability is to make the best music it can with the best musicians available, according to Williams; social justice is not its comparative advantage. “It’s ridiculous to pursue 12 percent black representation in orchestras,” he says. “It’s an unrealistic expectation, given the deliriously difficult level of competition now, especially from Asians.” Moreover, programming and hiring by race will not bring blacks into the concert hall over the long term unless those black audiences have an underlying interest in the music.
Williams is not optimistic about resistance to the quota lobby, however: “It will take an administration inured to being called a racist.” Unfortunately, “nothing scares these organizations more” than that charge. “The accusers don’t have to prove anything. It’s like Soviet style confessions: the accused is guilty no matter what he actually did.”
Ironically, the prejudice that Williams has encountered as a musician is not racial but political. He was a candidate for a significant recording project until the late composer’s family learned of Williams’s purported conservative leanings. In a long missive explaining the family’s decision, the project’s producer recounted his own shock upon learning in the early 2000s that Williams had backed George W. Bush. That dismay paled in comparison with the producer’s horror in hearing from a family member that Williams occasionally wrote in support of Donald Trump on Facebook. “I have to say, I can’t begin to imagine how you rationalize/justify this to yourself—it is beyond my ability to comprehend. This is partly because I haven’t encountered a soul who supports Trump, other than perhaps the local pizza guy.” The composer’s family was encased in the same political bubble: “In all honesty,” the producer wrote, “everyone’s immediate reaction was that they could never work with someone who would associate himself with and defend that individual.”
Williams responded passionately: “I cannot find words to express how disappointing it was to read your [email]. . . . I have always accepted that people will disagree about many things and yet when it comes to work—to music—I have no problem at all working with anyone. It is the American Way to agree to disagree and to do so civilly without harm to life, limb, or livelihood. That was a major part of The Founders’ purpose: to enable disagreement, dialogue, and a smooth, non-violent transfer of power. That has been forgotten by an unhealthy chunk of the population. . . . It shouldn’t matter what I think or who I support politically; when it comes to music, we have always wanted the best result.”
One of Williams’s former teachers, reading the composer’s account of the exchange on Facebook, responded that he, too, would deny work to someone of such sympathies.
Williams has not backed down from expressing views that put him at odds with much of the musical establishment, however. This past Fourth of July, he posted on Facebook: “Happy Birthday to the greatest country the world has ever known. It is a place where the humblest and most common can achieve the highest and most respected places in society through dint of hard work, determination, and a willingness to take risks. Our core documents were sagaciously designed to encompass everyone and they do despite those who tried to prevent it.”
Award-winning conductor John McLaughlin Williams, a critic of today’s race obsessions (SUSAN TUSA/MCT/NEWSCOM)