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Director of Bands John Williamson to conduct last concert April 17

Director of Bands John Williamson speaks about his experience at Central Michigan University and his retirement on April 9 in the Music Building.

On Feb. 21, 2017, Symphonic Wind Ensemble Director John Williamson was faced with a challenge: conducting the world premiere of David Maslanka’s Concerto No. 3 for piano and wind ensemble. 

Maslanka was in attendance for the performance at Staples Family Concert Hall. No one had ever heard the piece. Williamson didn’t know how the revered composer wanted the piece to be performed. 

It had to be perfect.

When the Symphonic Wind Ensemble and piano soloist Alexandra Mascolo-David finished the piece, the hall was filled with dead silence.

After several moments, Williamson looked to Mascolo-David as if to ask, “Is this OK?”

Williamson’s eyes moved toward Maslanka. The composer was on stage sobbing, unable to speak and overcome at the beautiful sound of his work performed live.

This was one of the many memories Williamson will take with him into retirement after 39 years at CMU. He will conduct the Symphonic Wind Ensemble one last time in a free concert at 7:30 p.m. April 17 at Staples Family Concert Hall. 

Williamson has been at CMU since 1979, but he and his wife Karen will soon be living near the mountains in a suburb outside Phoenix. Williamson, CMU’s director of Bands, is not sure if he will conduct anywhere else.

“That part is kind of a mystery,” he said.

But Williamson will always treasure the decades he’s spent at CMU.

Every concert is “special” to him, he said. As a high school band conductor in the suburbs of northwest Chicago, Williamson received offers from colleges before. But he turned them all down.

When CMU had an opening available, Williamson said it felt far more compelling. The campus was “unusually friendly,” he said. He conducted the ensemble and has turned down every new offer since.

Williamson attributes the success of the wind ensemble to his high standards. He conducts the band not as a student ensemble, Williamson said, but as a professional ensemble.

“Whatever your standards are, that’s what the group’s standards are,” Williamson said.

Associate Professor of Bands James Batcheller believes Williamson’s high standards are his greatest strength.

“(Williamson’s) exacting standards are as high for himself as for his students,” Batcheller said. “He takes great care to design every rehearsal to maximize student achievement.”

Corey Jahlas, a graduate conducting student, said Williamson’s passion for music is contagious. 

“(Williamson) makes sure the people who graduate from his program are ready to go out and make music with the same fire that he does,” Jahlas said. “When you play for him, you’re not making music because you have a concert. You’re making music because it’s important to make music.”

Homer senior Chris Marvil said a musician once suddenly started walking off stage during a performance since he didn’t have anything left to play — but the piece wasn’t over yet.

“Williamson’s eyes were burning a hole through him,” Marvil said.

But afterward, Williamson took on a conciliatory tone.

“It’s fine. We’re all a freshman at one point,” Marvil remembered Williamson saying. “And you’ll be a freshman forever in our eyes.”

Williamson was also known for his hospitality, Batcheller said.

“(The Williamsons) are exceedingly generous in opening their home — to friends, colleagues, and often students who are stranded over the holidays — for amazing feasts,” Batcheller said. “Still, on every one of those occasions, Williamson finds an opportunity to jokingly thank everyone for coming so he can have a home cooked meal.”

In his nearly 40 years at the university, Williamson has fostered excellence, Batcheller said, adding that Williamson’s colleagues across the country are now helping however they can in finding a successor.

“It speaks volumes that we’ve had only two people in that job since World War II,” Batcheller said.