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Citizen Staff

He hangs up baton, rings up success



William McGlaughlin was walking in Paris a few years back when he heard an ominous tolling of church bells.

Two notes, a half-step apart, in very pure tones.

His interest piqued, he found the church, grabbed a coffee across the street, and plunked down to see if there would be more. It played the same two-note sequence twice the next time around. McGlaughlin determined to stay to the hour, when a third, equally ominous tone was added to the sequence.

“I thought, `This is so scary.’ It sounds like Dies Irae (the Gregorian chant of the dead) to me – this minor triad,” McGlaughlin recalls, speaking by phone from his New York home last week. “So it just stuck in my head.

“I came back the following Saturday. I was going to be there at noon and hear the whole works. It turned out there was a christening that let out just before noon. All these people streamed out of the church with their newly baptized infants and the bells started. It turned out there was a fourth note. There was a G above. And then whoever was ringing the bells started to let them run together wildly. It was like (American composer Charles) Ives, as opposed to the very staid, almost funereal procession I’d heard before. Now the F and the G and the E and the F were smashing together. It went on and on and on. And all the little kids were holding their ears. It was terrifying. I was jumping up and down going, `I don’t think this is just my fourth coffee of the day. I think I’m diggin’ it.’ ”

This was the inspiration behind McGlaughlin’s “The Bells of St. Ferdinand” – one of nine Diamond Jubilee works commissioned by the Tucson Symphony Orchestra to celebrate its 75th anniversary. The former TSO music director will lead the orchestra in its premiere Oct. 23 and 24. Also on the bill are Brahms’ “Variations on a Theme of Haydn” and Elgar’s “Enigma Variations.”

McLaughlin, who led TSO from 1982 to 1987, and who left the orchestra to become music director of the Kansas City Symphony, gave up conducting full time in 1998 to pursue a career as a composer.

“I made a very wise decision after consulting with my accountant and everything, and I decided to give up the conducting business, move to New York and become a composer,” McGlaughlin quips, adding that if he had an accountant he’d have fired him for letting him make the occupational trade. “I’ve been conducting almost every day for 25 years and I loved it. But I thought, `If I don’t do this soon I’ll never have the courage to try it.’ ”

Since then McGlaughlin has composed mainly orchestral works but also choral pieces and chamber music. His output includes “Aaron’s Horizon’s” – a work based on Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” – and “Three Mile Table” – a work written to commemorate the world’s longest bridge – Lisbon’s Vasco de Gama Bridge. He composed a piece for Garrison Keillor titled “Surviving Lake Wobegon,” which the public radio personality performs at pops programs around the country. And he wrote “Béla’s Bounce,” which is based around the idea of Béla Bartok and Charlie Parker meeting and making music together.

Like many composers, McGlaughlin has kept his day job to pay the bills. His brilliant “Saint Paul Sunday,” a fascinating interview program featuring luminary and more obscure masters from the musical world, still airs, and he recently added a new show for a major Chicago classical station, titled “Exploring Music with Bill McGlaughlin.”

“It’s a kick,” McGlaughlin says of the new series, which is five hourlong shows per week exploring a single composer or theme.

“The preparation for it is tremendous. It’s just me, a stack of records and a piano. And also I should say about 800 million books and scores.”

But while radio pays the bills, it can also unintentionally filter into his own music.

“One of the reasons I wanted not to conduct an orchestra every day is that that puts other people’s music in your head in a really potent way,” he says.

That’s not so bad last week when he had Haydn symphonies to pursue. But a while back he was taking on the music of Richard Strauss, who McGlaughlin considers both one of the most gifted composers of his day and a man capable of writing music as banal as some of his best work is uplifting. It happened, though, that McGlaughlin was focused on Strauss repertoire he’s personally less than thrilled with.

“I got stuck in there,” he says. “Everything I was writing for about a week after that was stuck right in the period of Richard Strauss that I don’t love (laughs). Like from `Heldenleben,’ which I can kind of get through (but you’ve got to wonder about it a little. He’s his own hero? OK.) through “Sinfonia Domestica.’ It gets cheesy to me.

“That was a tough week. I was disliking Richard Strauss and trying to go home and write my own damned stuff,” McGlaughlin says with a laugh.

if you go

What: The Tucson Symphony Orchestra with guest conductor William McGlaughlin

When: Tonight and Friday, 8 p.m.

Where: Tucson Convention Center Music Hall

Tickets: $15.75- $43, available through the TSO box office (882-8585).

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