The illustrious and multifaceted career of Julius Penson Williams has taken him all over the globe as an award-winning composer and conductor. A noted educator and professor in the Composition Department at Berklee College of Music, Maestro Williams also serves as Music Director and Conductor of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra, among other conducting positions. In 2019 he was named the first African American President of the Conductors Guild. For a detailed biography and more information about Maestro Williams, please click on the link at the end of this interview.
How have the past 19 months been for you?
Well, when the pandemic hit, I was actually supposed to be with the Hartford Symphony in Connecticut doing their Masterwork Series concerts. It was three performances, and I was going to do Dvorak, some of my works, and a concerto. Three days into the rehearsal period, just before the first performance, they came in and they closed the concert hall down at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center and told me to go home. So, that started a period where I was at home, doing not a lot, but I had some commissions, and I wrote pieces. I also re-edited the ballet that I wrote in the 90s, Cinderella, and I’m giving it to the New York City Ballet.
In addition, I’ve been running the organization of the International Conductors Guild, making sure that the organization is solid and has money, working with the executive director to apply for grants. At the same time, with all these things online, I got zoomed out, with everybody calling me for interviews, then Berklee started teaching on Zoom and it was not easy to try to teach conducting on Zoom. You know, I’m usually on planes flying here and there; this was the first time I was stationary, still just as busy as before, but online all the time.
Maestro Julius Penson Williams – Photo by Robert Torres
Please tell us more about running the Conductors Guild.
While running the organization, I’ve also been trying to expand it. There are a lot of conductors out there, from African American to South American… I got a chance to speak to them and it was great to bring them into the fold. When you become president of an organization you also find out all the things you have to fix and then there are constant calls and various other things. They re-elected me for another two-year term. I also got appointed to the League of American Orchestras as co-chair of the conductor’s constituency committee, dealing with conductors with orchestras in America. So, I continue to be very, very busy.
It’s amazing how you do it all, while also composing and teaching.
You know, conducting the orchestra at Berklee has been quite interesting under the Covid rules. There was a period when we couldn’t rehearse more than 30 minutes in one room; we had to change rooms every half an hour to refresh the airflow. In fact, now is the first time that we are performing together, and the kids are so happy not to have to hear: ‘okay let’s stop and change the room.’ We had two rooms in the convention center in Boston to rehearse and they had to be far enough away from each other. I had a limit on how many players I could have, usually there are 80 to 100 but my limit was 15 to 20. So, we couldn’t play any large works. It was challenging but also innovative.
What inspires you as a professor of composition?
I am inspired by so many students that go on to be something; for example, one of my students, Tuffus Zimbabwe, is a pianist for Saturday Night Live. He’s writing orchestral music and sending it to me; his great-uncle was a great composer. Then there’s Esperanza Spalding who’s the great jazz bass player and won several Grammys. I have a lot of students who are striving to be great, and that’s exciting to me. Their growth and their work’s growth are important to me; at least they learned something from me that helped them move ahead.
When you compose, you integrate various genres of music within your works; can you tell us more about that?
I’ll give you an example: I wrote a piece for the Boston Symphony entitled Songs of Our Culture. What I did was take the work of a woman who was a composer and arranger and who wrote books on African culture; her name is Maud Cuney Hare. Her parents were mixed race descendants of slaves. So, I took some of her studies of songs from Africa and African-American music and I’ve related it to the music of today. She had studied in Boston at the New England Conservatory and later she lived in Boston. This was an interesting project just before the pandemic started. The piece hasn’t been performed yet; it will be performed by the Boston Symphony. It’s a symphonic work based on these melodies that she studied in her historical documentation of African American culture.
You have a new album out called “Songs of Love and Justice.”
That is music by a composer named Adolphus Hailstork, a great American composer who was performed by many major orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra. I have recorded his compositions, such as his Symphony No. 1 years ago. The songs are pieces for soprano and orchestra based on the writings of Martin Luther King, recorded with the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra in the Czech Republic. Here at Berklee we have another album that’s out; I’m conducting the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra: songs from the documentary about caregivers called Sky Blossom directed by Richard Lui, an anchor at MSNBC.
How do you find the state of the classical music and opera industries today? Are you seeing any significant progress in terms of more diversity, equity, and inclusion?
The problem I’m having is that I’m seeing a lot of superficial stuff and I want to see if things really change. I see what some companies are doing, in many instances, is bringing in some young people, which is good, but they don’t have the background to fully understand what the situation has been over the years and I’m not sure whether that’s being done on purpose because they don’t always know what real questions to ask. But the good thing about this is that there’s some recognition: my good friend Terence Blanchard just had his opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones performed at the Metropolitan Opera. I’ve been doing a lot of new opera; another good friend Tania León got the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Music. So, I just want to see if the changes and recognition are going to stay, you know how it can go for a minute and then disappear. We don’t know yet…
You recently conducted Vanessa Williams at the Colour of Music Festival in a concert in September in South Carolina. How was it to work with her?
Actually, it was a lot of fun. Vanessa Williams is a great artist, wonderful human being. It was interesting because it turns out I knew her mother from conducting a festival in upstate New York. Her mother and father were both strong music teachers in New York state. And her tour manager and I were in the choir New York together. So, it was kind of like a reunion. She was wonderful, people were just screaming and hollering! The Colour of Music Festival orchestra was great, all Black players taken from orchestras around the country, and they were really, really good. Then another night I did a traditional classical performance. I had a great time.
We’re both alumni of Lehman College, CUNY; let’s give a shout-out to our alma mater: what do you think your experience at Lehman did for you and your development as a musician?
Lehman gave me the freedom to do what I wanted to do. I guess there were not a lot of performers there yet as adventurous as I was, and I got away with many things. I had a jazz ensemble, then I was working in musical theater in New York while going to school. At Lehman I had the freedom to create. They let me experiment and compose. I was also able to study with the great composers Ulysses Kay and John Corigliano, both Distinguished Professors of the CUNY system; Lehman was lucky to have two; at the time I think it was the only college to have two major artists on their staff. John and Uly were very present in inspiring me to compose. I was able to see these major composers have performances at the New York Philharmonic and their operas being premiered so this was a way of pinpointing where I wanted to go, that kind of impetus where you say, yeah that’s where I want to be. Because when I first got there, I thought, if I could be a music teacher, there’s nothing wrong with being a music teacher in high school or elementary school, but they changed my mind. I said to myself: ‘this is where I want to be and what I want to do, I want to compose and be a professional.’ So, I knew then that this was the life I wanted.
Photos courtesy of Julius Penson Williams