For many fans of classical music, the sound of Subito composer William McGlaughlin’s voice is intimately familiar and unmistakable. Heard each week on the award-winning, syndicated public radio program St. Paul Sunday, McGlaughlin’s trenchant thoughts on music coupled with a stellar line-up of guest performers make the program one of the most successful shows on the airwaves.
But this is only one facet of his diverse musical life. McGlaughlin began his career in the early 70’s as a trombonist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Raised in Philly, he came to the trombone relatively late, beginning as a junior in high school. He quickly showed great aptitude toward the instrument, which led to undergraduate studies at Temple University, studying with former PO principal trombonist Henry Charles Smith.
Shortly after graduation, McGlaughlin auditioned for the orchestra, then under the direction of William Steinberg. At Temple and as a professional, he was very active in the contemporary music scene with groups such as Penn Contemporary Players and Philadelphia Composers Forum. With these ensembles and others (including Pittsburgh Camerata, which he founded) McGlaughlin gained an intimate knowledge of music by composers such as Elliot Carter, Charles Wuorinen, and other 20th century masters. But his thirst for musical experience and knowledge was not completely satisfied as a player. He therefore became interested in conducting, which led to an intensive one-year Masters Degree program at Temple . Upon completion, he immediately won a position as Associate Conductor with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Maestro Dennis Russell Davies.
During his seven-year stint with the SPCO (75-82), St. Paul Sunday Morning (as it was originally known) was developed by Minnesota Public Radio. He was asked to be the show’s first host in 1980, and has retained the position ever since. Concurrently, McGlaughlin continued to pursue his conducting career in other cities. He acted as Music Director for several orchestras, including Eugene Symphony (81-85), Tucson Symphony Orchestra (82-87), and the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra (82-88). He eventually settled down with the Kansas City Symphony in 1986, a position he held until 1998.
Under Maestro McGlaughlin, KCS received five Innovative Programming awards from ASCAP. The awards were recognition of his continued interest in contemporary music, which he framed for KCS audiences in such a way as to help them understand the composers’ intentions. Of his conducting, composer Joan Tower said that McGlaughlin “thinks and conducts like a composer.” He eventually took Tower’s words to heart.
His first steps towards composing were made after the tragic loss of his friend and colleague, the composer, pianist, and Kansas City native Kevin Oldham. Shortly after McGlaughlin led Oldham in a performance of his own Concerto for Piano, he died of complications caused by the AIDS virus. To commemorate his life and talent, McGlaughlin chose to compose a work for chorus and orchestra, using the poetry of e.e. cummings as text. The piece, Three Dreams and a Question, was premiered in April of 1997.
Shortly after Three Dreams, McGlaughlin began considering the possibilities of a new career in composing. In the ensuing months, he made the decision to step down as Music Director at Kansas City to focus on his new passion. He found the rigors of both conducting and composing incompatible. “I had started writing pieces before Three Dreams. I would be up all night composing, and then have to meet the band at 10am. would have to have to have something to say about Schubert 9 or Mahler 6, all these huge pieces. And I’d be upset that I had to take time away from these dinky pieces of mine.”*
This set the stage for a ten-month explosion of compositional activity which resulted in 5 new works, mostly for symphony orchestra. He continued on with KSC as a guest conductor on several occasions the following season. For his appearance in January of 98, McGlaughlin decided to program a new work of his own. Then in September, he had to put together a seasonal Christmas concert: “There are lots of great pieces for orchestra (Bach, Vaughn Williams, etc.), and there are also the awful pieces you play every year just because its Christmas. I thought, ‘I could write a virtuoso piece for orchestra. might be kind of fun. should take no time at all.’ Well, because I started both pieces at the same time, it nearly killed me! But, I got through them.”
The Christmas piece, Solstice: Fantasy on Old English Carols, is a large work for orchestra that inventively explores several traditional English carols. The second work, Crooked Timbers, premiered the following January.
The process by which McLaughlin creates music is both studied and extemporaneous. He experiments with different methods to elicit the ever-elusive “moment of inspiration”. He often builds compositional ideas from external sources, whether personal, musical, or literary (a frequent inspirational guide). As he did several times during our interview, McGlaughlin discussed the process of writing Crooked Timbers by playing parts of it on the piano:
“I couldn’t figure out how to start it. I tried everything: running, meditating, staying up all night sitting at the keyboard. Finally, one morning after meditating, I played a lick on the piano (plays the opening phrase), then wrote it down. After playing it again I thought, ‘Oh God! You just wrote ‘Summer of 42′ by Michael Legrand!’ Then I thought, ‘Now wait a minute, he wrote THAT, you wrote (again plays his opening bars which features a large, descending interval and ends with an augmented chord). When stuff like that comes in, it’s at your peril to ignore it. Sometimes when I meet with young composers, I say ‘don’t shrug it off.’ Write it down and throw it out later if you have to, but don’t avoid the impulse.”
Crooked Timbers also came about from a literary source, though it didn’t begin that way. While writing the piece, He was reading the philosophical essays of Oxford professor Sir Isaiah Berlin. On his way out of faculty meetings, Berlin was known to quote Immanuel Kant’s words, “Out of timber so crooked, as that from which man is made, nothing entirely straight can be built.” Kant equated “crooked” with “bad”, but McGlaughlin felt that Berlin ‘s usage was the opposite. He agreed with Berlin ‘s interpretation, and felt that many of his favorite musicians such as Miles Davis and Beethoven were cut from wonderfully “crooked timber”, an idea he celebrated musically as he completed the work.
His next work during this fecund 10-month period, Aaron’s Horizon’s, was also inspired by a single idea, albeit a musical one. The SPCO had asked McGlaughlin to conduct the original 13-player orchestration of Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring on a June ’98 program. As he considered other works that this instrumentation could perform, he decided to write a piece for Copland, whom he befriended in the 1970’s. McGlaughlin stated that the music of Appalachian Spring can be reduced to a single vertical voicing of an A major chord, with the color tones of the major 7th and 9th included. In the opening of his work, he chose to use a similar harmonic construction, but rather than simply restating the same voicing, he breaks the chord into smaller, oscillating intervals. Again from the piano:
“You can’t have [the same chord structure] exactly, but my piece starts out with (plays in low register, with back and forth intervallic fragments of the chord) and then later, a major-y thing comes in, as if Copland were there for a minute. But rather than it being about Copland’s music, it’s about the space he gave us.”
Shortly after the SPCO premiere of Aaron’s Horizon’s, McGlaughlin was commissioned to write a mixed chamber ensemble piece by Music at Gretna in Portugal . The City of Lisbon had recently opened the longest bridge in the world, Vasco de Gama Bridge, dedicated to the famous explorer. The work’s title, Three Mile Table, refers to a table constructed and placed on the bridge to celebrate its opening. Again, the instrumentation was based on other pieces on the program, in this case Mozart. Three Mile Table utilizes Portuguese folk melodies in a whimsical and buoyant orchestration for a sextet of flute, oboe, violin, cello, guitar, and piano.
The final work to be created during McGlaughlin’s juggernaut of initial compositional activity was commissioned by the Camerata Orchestra of Bloomington , Indiana . Bela’s Bounce is a large orchestral piece that shares a similar progeny with previous works. On the second half of the concert, he was to conduct Bela Bartok’s Piano Concerto No.2. Again riffing off an idea as whimsical as a three mile table, McGlaughlin imagined a meeting between two master musician’s from different backgrounds living in New York during the 1940’s: Bartok and Charlie Parker. McGlaughlin described the idea:
“I know [they never met], but I love that Bird and Bartok showed up in New York in the 40’s. Bird fresh from Jay McShann’s band, Bela fresh from Hitler. I imagined Bird knocking on Bartok’s door for harmony lessons, and Bela hopping in a cab uptown to Minton’s to hear Bird play.”
The title also refers to Charlie Parker’s tune Billie’s Bounce, which makes an oblique appearance in the pieces rhythmic, mixed-meter middle section.
Although his schedule is kept quite full with St. Paul Sunday taping sessions and guest conducting appearances, McLaughlin maintains a visible composing profile. In 2000, he premiered a commissioned work for the Continental Harmony program, a nation-wide musical celebration of the new millennium. Similar in ensemble size to Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 (Symphony of a Thousand), Walt Whitman’s Dream was first heard at the annual International Choral Festival in Missoula, Montana, with the Festival chorus of 800 and Missoula Symphony performing.
In addition, he recently premiered Surviving Lake Wobegon, a work commissioned by fellow Minnesota Public Radio personality Garrison Keillor. Scored for narrator and orchestra, the text consists of stories from Keillor’s famous and fictitious small town, with the author as narrator. Other recent works include Angelus, McGlaughlin’s response to the 9/11 tragedy, commissioned and premiered by the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis, with subsequent performances by the Minnesota Orchestra.
Looking ahead, he’ll be making two new pieces for the Bennington Chamber Music Festival, and his former employer, Tucson Symphony, has commissioned a large work as part of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary celebration.
*composer quotes taken from an interview conducted by the editor on 2/2/03 in New York City