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Busy Bill McGlaughlin seeks a composer's loneliness
Michael Anthony
Star Tribune

William McGlaughlin
Here's how it usually goes: Composer sits in shabby garret sharpening his pencils and yearning for a grant to help pay the rent, his head filled with venomous envy for the conductor, who is rich and glamorous and always flies first-class. Eventually, composer turns to conducting.

Bill McGlaughlin is going in the other direction. The one-time assistant conductor of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, McGlaughlin went on to spend 12 years as music director of the Kansas City Symphony, a position he gave up in 1998. He still waves a baton from time to time, and he continues as host of Minnesota Public Radio's "St. Paul Sunday," the most popular classical show on radio, according to its producer. He also produces records with his longtime companion, jazz singer Karrin Allyson, with whom he lives in New York City.

But at 58, McGlaughlin's main occupation is to sit in a garret, shabby or not, and compose concert music, whether it be for orchestra, chamber ensemble or chorus. No more full-time orchestra positions. And so, as a celebration of its 50th season, the Civic Orchestra of Minneapolis will premiere McGlaughlin's "Angelus" in a concert this afternoon at Ted Mann Concert Hall.

In a phone interview last week, McGlaughlin laughed at the suggestion that his career was moving against the current of convention. "Yeah, a financial advisor looking at this -- giving up a music-director position, becoming mostly a composer and moving to New York -- would say I have holes in my head.

"I'd pretty much worked as a conductor for a quarter of a century," he continued. "I was joking with some people once at the New York Philharmonic. I said 'I never got to conduct the Mahler 7th.' But everything else of Mahler, I did. At a certain point, I can live without that. The truth is, I'm enjoying the relative freedom of schedule I have now. It's hard to think of my own music -- or find it -- when I have so much great music of other composers rolling around in my head."

Inspiration from a sad tale

McGlaughlin started composing in the early '90s while still in Kansas City. The stimulus turned into a sad tale. Kevin Oldham, a gifted young pianist and composer from that city, sent McGlaughlin the score of a piano concerto he had written. McGlaughlin liked its spunky mix, with echoes of Gershwin, Ravel, Liszt and Tin Pan Alley. He wrote Oldham a note saying "This is great. We'll schedule it one of these days."

"And I meant it," McGlaughlin said. "Then a guy I knew from the old Exxon conductors program wrote me and said 'I understand you might do Kevin's piano concerto. Don't wait too long. He's dying.' "

Oldham was able to leave the hospital and play the concerto, McGlaughlin said. "I was actually holding him offstage. He could barely stand, but somehow he got through the piece." Oldham died of complications from AIDS at 32, before he could record his concerto. (The recording was made shortly after his death in 1993, with Ian Hobson as soloist.)

A year later, McGlaughlin found himself working with two baritones -- Thomas Hampson and Sanford Sylvan -- who sang settings of American poets.

"I thought, 'I like this. I want to do something like this,' " McGlaughlin said. "And it sort of went together with my thinking about Kevin."

The result was a work for chorus and orchestra, "Three Dreams and a Question: Choral Songs on e.e. cummings," premiered to wide acclaim in Kansas City in 1997.

"It's all about the turn of the times and the seasons," McGlaughlin said. "Both the chorus and the orchestra liked doing it, and the manager down there said 'Write me some more.' So I did."

Among his recent works is "Aunt Eva," which Garrison Keillor has been performing with orchestras around the country.

The work for the Civic Orchestra here came about through McGlaughlin's longtime friendship with Cary John Franklin, the orchestra's music director and himself a busy composer. The musicians themselves pooled their money and commissioned the piece. There's a nice symmetry to this: During his years in Kansas City, McGlaughlin commissioned four works from Franklin.

As someone who mixes conducting and composing, Franklin understands why McGlaughlin is focusing on just one. "I think the music director's duties just got to be too onerous for Bill," Franklin said. "He started getting this composing bug, and there just wasn't time to do it all. Actually, there was a time when he didn't conduct at all. About a year and a half ago, he told me he missed working with people. I think he's glad to be back and starting to do a little more of it again."

McGlaughlin laughed when he heard that. "It's true. I've gone from working with 80 or 90 players to being alone, and for a while that was great. I'd have to say composing is about the loneliest game in town."

Star-studded radio

Franklin was also in on the beginnings of McGlaughlin's radio career. He turned pages for the guest pianist back in March 1981 when the first "St. Paul Sunday" was taped. A mix of talk and live performance, often by some of the biggest names in music, it has been a rousing success.

Taped at MPR's studios in downtown St. Paul and aired locally on KSJN (99.5 FM, 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Sundays), the show is distributed by Public Radio International to 224 stations with an estimated audience of 424,400, said executive director Mary Lee. In 1995, it won the prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.

"We didn't know if we'd be on the air six months," said McGlaughlin, who had little previous radio experience. "It's been the greatest music lessons in the world for me. It opened so many doors, musically, emotionally." He recalled conducting last summer at a chamber-music festival where nearly every musician had been a guest on the show.

Franklin, who presides over seven or eight of the shows each year as a free-lance producer, said McGlaughlin "has an uncanny way of getting at the core of the music and identifying what's important about it and then communicating that to the listener. Plus, he's got a wealth of information and ideas."

Guests all get the same amount of money for doing the show. "It's a low fee, based on the union contract," Lee said. The show's success has meant that she doesn't have to plead for guests. They come to her.

The biggest problem is coordinating schedules with guests who travel constantly. Last year, the show expanded to a live concert series, hosted by McGlaughlin, at Ted Mann. The guest ensemble for the March 28 concert will be the trio FOG, with pianist Garrick Ohlsson, cellist Michael Grebanier and violinist Jorja Fleezanis, concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra.

He hears an orchestra singing

McGlaughlin, the oldest of six children in a working-class family in Philadelphia, didn't take up the piano and trombone until he was in high school. He learned fast. At 23, he was a trombonist in the Philadelphia Orchestra, after which he spent six years in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, then led by William Steinberg, who encouraged his growing interest in conducting.

He joined the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 1975, when Dennis Russell Davies was music director. Once married and once divorced, with two grown children, he met Allyson during his years in Kansas City. He co-produced and wrote the string charts for her Grammy-nominated CD "Ballads," a collection of songs recorded by saxophonist John Coltrane.

Allyson was a little disappointed not to win a Grammy last month, McGlaughlin said, but the sting was lessened when she met Bonnie Raitt, who knew of her and her music.

McGlaughlin, however, was eager to return to his garret to compose. Next on the drawing boards is a trio for flute, clarinet and bassoon.

He began writing "Angelus" after the attacks on the World Trade Center. He said this is the simplest piece he has written. Near the end of the piece, the orchestra members sing with their lips closed for two minutes.

"I thought of a lot of people singing, but you can't tell if it's a man or woman and certainly not what nationality they are," he said. "I thought, 'Some of what's gotten us into this mess is doctrine, all those words attached to songs.' I thought 'What if all of us all across the world started to sing at once?' That's the idea, but I'm not going to put that in a program note. I'm just going to let it happen."

McGlaughlin has had such an unusual career, it's hard to predict what his next move will be or what his next composition will be like. Even longtime colleagues like Lee weren't surprised by his switch from conducting to composing. "That just shows what a diverse and open guy he is," she said.

-- Michael Anthony is at manthony@startribune.com .

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