The magic of Marley’s music leads to a symphony
What happens when Christian meets Rastafarian? For decades in Jamaica there was hostility, violence and even death.
But when Jon Williams, a committed Christian and a musician, encountered Bob Marley, an avowed Rastaman and a musician, it was the common component, the music, not the differences, that became the focus of Williams’ attention. The result has been the magnificent Marley Symphony, which saw its world premiere at The University Chapel, Mona, last Saturday night.
If the enthusiastic reception given the nearly 25-minute-long work is anything to judge by, the symphony, like the rest of Marley’s music, will receive international acclaim. The standing ovation lasted several minutes and was every bit as loud as the symphony’s closing fanfare.
Admittedly, the applause might have been for the evening’s programme as a whole, including the skilled performance of the 40-strong Philharmonic Orchestra of Jamaica (POJ), conducted by Franklin E Halliburton. There was much more to the evening than the symphony.
Among the 11 main items, there was the Suite of Jamaican Songs for Viola and Piano, a 20-minute work composed and performed by Williams and his son Jovani. It also had its premiere on Saturday night and also got much applause.
Other items in the wonderfully rich programme were the opening five-minute evocative composition Waterfalls & Pebbles by Paulette Bellamy; a percussion-filled excerpt from the Nyabinghi Symphony by Andrew Marshall; Sinfonietta No 1, Xaymaca 1494 (about Columbus arriving in Jamaica) by Theodor Alardo Runcie; Two Songs for Soprano by Peter Ashbourne, and also his variation for a string quartet of O’er Our Blue Mountains; and an emotional singing of the National Pledge by a combined schools choir. The words are by Victor S Reid and the arrangement by Halliburton.
All these, except the Suite of Jamaican Songs, were in the first half. The second half, which ended with the Marley Symphony, also included the merry, energetic Festivities from Run A Boat Symphony; a hilarious, Jamaica-oriented re-writing of My Favourite Things from The Sound of Music, sung by Ellan Neil, and Ashbourne’s Jamaican Folk Medley for Voice and Orchestra (sung by Neil, with the POJ accompanying her).
In an interview with The Gleaner at his studio last Thursday, Williams said the folk suite was one of the works he was “really happy about” and it was written to add a high-quality composition to the relatively small international viola repertoire. A “fun project”, it was chosen because Jovani studied the viola at Lynn Conservatory in Boca Raton, Florida. Written while Williams was finishing the Marley Symphony, the suite incorporates Dis Long Time Gal, Fi Mi Love Have Lion Heart and Solas Market.
The creation of the symphony demonstrated the saying, “the longest journey begins with one step”, for Williams had no grand work in mind when he agreed to a request from Freddie McGregor a decade ago that he provide an orchestral opening item for McGregor’s concert in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
The relatively simple arrangement of Marley’s Exodus and Redemption Song – chosen, Williams said, because of Marley’s popular appeal – was so well received that he re-worked it a bit and offered it to The Jamaica Youth Orchestra who asked him for a composition for orchestra for its launch some years later.
Subsequently, the POJ got it and asked for a second movement. When, still later, they wanted Movement 3, and the busy Williams was taking a long time to deliver; it became a formally commissioned work for the POJ repertoire.
Contemplating the decade-long process of composing the symphony, Williams said it marked his own evolution as an orchestral composer. “I’m more of an arranger,” he admitted, classifying the first movement as basically an arrangement of the two Marley songs.
However, for the second and third movements, he composed in the more traditional way, with a theme and sub-themes. For Movement 2, he used his own theme with Marley’s song Natural Mystic as a sub-theme, and for Movement 3, he again used his own theme with Marley’s So Much Trouble in the World as the sub-theme.
“I wanted to convey a message of hope,” Williams said, “because, as the song says, there’s so much trouble in the world. So, the symphony is relevant to our time. It’s calling upon people to respond to each other, not with the harshness of the times, but with kindness.”
Movement 3 starts with a fanfare, Williams said, signifying a herald with an announcement, the return of Christ. The movement also ends with a fanfare, indicating the joyful arrival. It was completed just a month ago, Williams said, stressing that it marked the completion of the symphony as a whole. Chuckling, he said that though there are symphonies with four movements, the Marley Symphony is not one of them.
Asked if the symphony as a whole has a message of hope, peace and harmony, Williams said he believed that was indeed Marley’s central message in the context of troubled times. “There’s honey in the carcass,” he said, giving a Biblical allusion.
Williams, a 2010 Silver Musgrave Award recipient and a master artist lecturer of jazz piano at the Edna Manley College’s School of Music, is interested in numerous forms of music. His biography states, “Prior to further immersion in classical training on the violin and piano at the Royal College of Music, London, England, he undertook orchestral arrangements as part of his personal development as a musician, exploring R&B, pop, funk, folk, and reggae, among other genres.”
He is now also a composer of a symphony, acknowledged as the musical form at the peak of music’s hierarchy.