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Mark Stryker
Detroit Free Press, February 2009

Williams has made 10 CDs as a conductor, most of neglected 20th-Century American music written in tonal or neo-romantic styles. Here are three fine introductions to his work:

• A lovingly conducted survey of orchestral music by Henry Kimball Hadley (1871-1937) revived interest in an American late-romantic composer with a homegrown melodic perfume (Naxos).

• "Cleveland Chamber Symphony, Vol. 6" includes sharply etched readings of 20th-Century French modernist Olivier Messiaen's "Exotic Birds" (with pianist Angelin Chang) and Dmitri Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1. Williams won a Grammy in 2007 for the Messiaen performance (TNC/Cambria).

• A disc of two symphonic masses (no chorus) by Nicolas Flagello (1928-1994) and Arnold Rosner (born 1945), spotlights Americans working in conservative tonal idioms in an era when high modernist complexity held sway (Naxos).

The Grammy Awards for classical music are often mocked for ignoring the most original and important classical CDs. Still, they do reward excellent work and, as John McLaughlin Williams proves, performers on the margins now have as good a chance at winning as big-name stars.

Here are the rest of John McLaughlin Williams' recordings as a conductor:

• A CD of 20th-Century violin concertos by Ernest Bloch and Benjamin Lees with soloist Elmar Oliveira was nominated for a Grammy on Sunday (Artek). The album lost to conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen and violinist Hilary Hahn's violin concertos by Schoenberg and Sibelius.

• Two additional CDs feature the music of American Nicolas Flagello (Naxos and Artek).

• Two CDs on Naxos of music by American George Frederick McKay (1899-1970).

• Single discs devoted to Americans John Alden Carpenter (1876-1951) and contemporary Deon Nielsen Price (Naxos and Cambria).

Thomas McClain
American Record Guide, December 2001

McKay's "music is powerful and original, in the same general school as Howard Hanson's but with its own voice.

From a Moonlit Ceremony was premiered in 1946 by Stokowski and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. It is a suite in four movements, colorful, tuneful, and attractive. It was inspired by the composer attending a Native American ceremony near Mt Ranier, but conveys his impressions rather than trying to portray the activities. Harbor Narrative was inspired by a boat trip around Puget Sound. The final work on the program, Evocation Symphony, subtitled Symphony for Seattle, was commissioned in 1951 to celebrate the city's centennial. It is in three movements, and it manages to rise above the level of 'official music' and sustain interest from beginning to end.

The performances are attractive and idiomatic. The Ukrainian orchestra does its best and gives convincing performances, though its tone quality and ensemble are sometimes less than ideal. Conductor Williams is clearly committed to the music. The recording is clean and clear, never drawing attention away from the music. The notes, by Mr Williams, are a model of their kind. Anyone interested in exploring American music in depth will want to listen to this. And I definitely want to hear more of Mr McKay's remarkable music."

Lawrence A. Johnson
Fanfare, November 2001

After a shaky launch Naxos’ “American Classics” series has grown to provide collectors with a dizzying variety of home-grown repertoire, nearly all given performances that are usually solid and often first-class. Of the vast array of worthwhile releases from the past year, I could haveoicked several, but the disc featuring George Frederick McKay reflects the series at its finest; a neglected composer and attractive, largely unknown music given first-rate performances and engineering…John McLaughlin Williams makes a most impressive recording debut, eliciting glowing and warmly committed performances from the Ukraine orchestra. Naxos’ fine series has provided some of my most enjoyable musical discoveries in the past year. At a time of vast retrenchment in the classical recording industry, for the indefatigable Klaus Haymann to offer to the record-buying public such a volume and variety of American musical riches at a bargain-basement price is a welcome boon indeed and a hopeful sign of the future.

Paul Snook
Fanfare, November 2001

Naxos’ American classics series has suddenly taken an encouraging turn backward in time toward the shamefully neglected premodernist generation, with outstanding programs devoted to George McKay, John Alden Carpenter and Henry Hadley, with Frederick Converse waiting in the wings.

Paul A. Snook
Fanfare, October 2001

"This Naxos release serves as an exceptional ear-opener in documenting just how substantial and individualistic was his achievement as a nationalist composer...The word "evocative" leaps to mind when I listen to all this is a real winner no one interested in our country's music can afford to pass up. It deserves our unqualified support and endorsement."

Steve Metcalf
Hartford Courant, August 2001

"The 'American Classics' series of CDs on Naxos is proving to be one of the few projects of distinction in the often-sorry recent history of classical recording. Case in point: this disc of the Northwest American composer George Frederick McKay...his music-as evidenced by this disc-is hearty and original, a real pleasure to discover...This quintessentially American music is played solidly by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine (one of the many competent no-name ensembles in the Naxos stable), conducted nicely by Washington, D.C. native John McLaughlin."

Victor Carr Jr., June 2001

"George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) was known as the 'Dean of Northwest composers', having made a successful musical career in Seattle where he was professor of music at the University of Washington for more than 41 years. McKay drew upon the sounds of his region for his compositions, and these included the songs and dances of the local Native American peoples that form the basis of From a Moonlit Ceremony (1945), a purely orchestral work that's both a vivid portrayal of tribal ceremonies and a testament to Mckay's compositional wizardry. A Harbor Narrative (1934) conjures up a variety of images, from the tranquil eddies of Sea Horizon, to the hustle-bustle of Men and Machines (which has a busy, sophisticated quality not unlike Gershwin's Second Rhapsody).

By 1951, when he composed his Symphony for Seattle, McKay's style had become quite personalized and refined. Rather than relying on sound-pictures, McKay here strives to capture the essence of the breathtakingly beautiful region, resulting in music that has a recognizable "outdoor" quality, but closer to Howard Hanson than Aaron Copland. John McLaughlin Williams leads all three works with remarkable sensitivity to McKay's moods. I continue to be amazed at how well this Ukranian orchestra plays American music, as it has done throughout Naxos' excellent American Classics series. The recording takes on a slight glare in the tuttis, but is otherwise fine. Naxos has unearthed yet another gem."

Peter Dickinson
Gramophone, June 2001

"Colorfully orchestrated...McKay may not be a classic but these works from three decades, convincingly played, are attractive reminders of American romantic orchestral music still out there waiting to be discovered."

Raymond Tuttle
Classical Net

"Here's another interesting American Classics CD from Naxos...If there's any justice in the world, this Naxos disc will stimulate new interest in his won't go wrong with this work, or with this CD overall...this recording satisfies me in every way...Naxos's engineering captures a splendid orchestral sound. Detail, clarity, warmth, and spectacle all have been captured by the label's team."

Robert Benson

"Another worthy entry in Naxos' American Classics series. As American orchestras for the most part have priced themselves out of the recording scene, this enterprising project features European orchestras, in this case the Ukraine National Symphony, a fine group that has figured prominently thus far in the series.

"George Frederick McKay (1899-1970) was considered to be "Dean of Northwest Composers" and for more than four decades was Professor of Music at the University of Washington (1927-1968). Born in Washington State, he began composing when in high school and, in spite of his father's objections, attended Eastman School of Music where in 1923 he received the first composition degree ever conferred by the institution. McKay was recognized as a leading educator, composer and booster of American music. His works were widely performed and broadcast during this period with his music conducted by Stokowski, Beecham, Sevitsky, Hanson, Kreuger, Fennell and Arthur Fiedler. McKay also was a teacher; his students included William Bolcom, John Cage and Goddard Lieberson. Although apparently popular during his era, McKay's music seems to be forgotten today; Schwann/Opus lists no recordings, so this Naxos issue is of major importance for those interested in Americana.

"From a Moonlit Ceremony was written in 1945 during McKay's second period, "The Years of Western Flavor," premiered at the Hollywood Bowl the following year with Stokowski on the podium, although this is not included in Oliver Daniel's list of premieres in his book Stokowski, A Counterpoint of View. There are four movements utilizing songs and dances of the Muckleshoot Indian tribe collected by the composer when he visited their reservation: Evocation, Demon Dance, Spirit Song and Festival Dance. All pleasant listening, although the Demon Dance is quite tame. Harbor Narrative, composed in 1934 for piano is McKay's earliest music on this CD; the later version for large orchestra heard here features the piano quite prominently. Although the composer considered this to be the best of his works up until that time, the re-orchestrated version was never performed during his lifetime. There are nine brief movements: Sea Horizon, En route, Voice of the City, Chanty, Men and Machines, Gulls, Waterfront March, Outward Bound and Into the Distance. Highlights are the evocative opening movement with its rich harp glissandi, and the exquisite oboe solo in Chanty. Symphony for Seattle was commissioned by the Seattle Music and Art Foundation to commemorate that city's centennial. There are three movements to this 25-minute work without colorful titles McKay often used: Andante - Allegro con moto, Andante teneramente e pastorale and Allegro vigoroso e ritmico. It's considered to be one of his finest, most mature works. It also is called "Evocation Symphony," a summing up of the past and combining it with a new-found clarity and commitment, avoiding use of folk tunes but showing influence of Janacek and Martinu.

"Conductor John McLaughlin Williams, who wrote the fine CD program notes, leads superb performances. Producers Marina and Victor Ledin, along with engineer Andriy Mokrytsky, have achieved splendid sound with a natural perspective and wide dynamic range. Kudos to Naxos for this...and other releases in their American Classics series!"

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