Julius Williams Takes the Baton at the BCSO

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Professor Julius Williams has been named as the music director and conductor of the Berklee Contemporary Symphony Orchestra (BCSO). The ensemble was formed in 2008 and was the first orchestra organized at Berklee that planned to include classical music on their concert programs in addition to orchestral music from other genres.

Venezuelan-born professor Francisco Noya, the orchestra’s first conductor, passed the baton to Williams unofficially in 2017 after leading the group for nearly a decade. Noya established the musical direction of the orchestra with creative programming that juxtaposes works by composers such as Gustav Holst and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky with pieces such as Fantasy on a River Theme, a concerto for electric bass written by John Patitucci; Devolution: A Concerto for DJ and Symphony Orchestra by Anthony Paul De Ritis; and the concert suite from Star Trek into Darkness by film composer Michael Giacchino.

Williams began working with the BCSO in April 2017 when he handled orchestra rehearsals for Howard Shore’s monumental Lord of the Rings Symphony, which was conducted by Robert Boardman at Boston’s Symphony Hall. Since then, Williams has taken seriously the charge to make the orchestra unlike those found elsewhere.

“Berklee didn’t want to have a ‘Beethoven orchestra’ focused on the mainstream repertoire,” Williams says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t perform music like that, but it’s not all we are doing.” Williams is a veteran conductor who has led the American and Brooklyn Philharmonic orchestras, and Washington Symphony Orchestra, and is the cover conductor for the Boston Pops Orchestra. He is also the music director of the Trilogy Opera Company in New Jersey, which focuses on operatic works by African American composers. Williams has also conducted the Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra on a dozen albums of new music and is the president-elect of the Conductors Guild.

In consultation with associate professor Patrice Jackson and associate director of performance division programs Jamie Davis-Ponce, Williams has crafted programs that illuminate his aspirations for the orchestra. “Last fall we played Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown, and Beige suite, a movement from Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9, and Cantata for Orchestra and Voice, symphonic settings of spirituals by John Carter,” Williams says. “I wanted to show links between African-American themes and composers and classical music.” That concert was dedicated to African-American lyric tenor and classical composer Roland Hayes to mark the centenary of his birth. Premiered on the program was Berlin 1942, a musical depiction of an episode from the life of Hayes penned by Berklee student Harsha Thangirala ’18, winner of the annual BCSO composition competition. The April concert, “Dances for Spring,” ended the semester with works by Copland, Puccini, Tchaikovsky, Elgar, and Bernstein.

Growing up in New York, Williams was mentored by Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, an innovative African-American composer and conductor. “I saw him onstage conducting when I was 12 or 13 and decided that’s what I wanted to do,” Williams recalls. “He asked me to conduct for a production when I was 17. Soon, I was doing things for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and other groups.” A profile of Williams on CBS Sunday Morning built career momentum. He was invited to Berklee in 1996 by late Berklee dean Warrick Carter to teach for a semester and he later joined the faculty.

Williams and the Conductors Guild are leading an effort to help orchestras begin to reflect both the musical and ethnic diversity of the population. “People have commented that this orchestra [BCSO] is more diverse than many others,” says Williams. “We have black principal players and musicians from many countries. I think this is the model for orchestras of the future.”