Classical Music

Inquiring Minds: Houston Symphony Guest Pianist and Classic Rock Fan William Joseph

William Joseph might not be a familiar name yet, but he also might be the next classical/pop breakout star. The 31-year-old pianist, a native of the Phoenix area, has been playing since age four and has toured with Josh Groban and Il Divo, as well as appearing onstage with everyone from Barbra Streisand and Natalie Cole to John Mayer and Alicia Keys.

Rocks Off spoke with Joseph, who joins the Houston Symphony this weekend to play his own arrangements of familiar holiday favorites for the "Very Merry Pops" program, earlier this week about his Fraggle Rock piano beginnings, mentor David Foster (the St. Elmo's Fire love-theme guy) and rocking out to Led Zeppelin and Rachmaninoff.

Rocks Off: How did you get started playing piano?

William Joseph: My parents just used to beat me. Just kidding.

When I was four, Fraggle Rock came on TV, and it was a show that I loved. I guess when the theme music came on one day, I ran into the toy room and got my little miniature toy piano and threw it in front of the TV. According to my parents, I started playing the theme with both hands and they were standing behind me. They looked at each other and thought, "You know what? We should get him lessons."

RO: When you really get going on the fast section of a piece, something like "Carol of the Bells," how many notes would you estimate you play in one minute's time?

WJ: [laughs] I have no clue. I wouldn't have the slightest clue. I guess one way to do it is looking at a piano score and add up all the notes, knowing that "this song takes me three minutes to play, so..." I've just never figured out that equation. But you know, I'm going to have an interesting plane ride over there. I might be counting some scores.

RO: What did you learn from working with David Foster?

WJ: I learned so much. One of the big things that I learned was how to create a memorable melody, or what the difference is between a memorable melody and a melody that does not stand on its own. So much music out today is so rhythm-based that the strong melody has kind of been lost. Accompaniment and everything aside, the melody should be able to stand on its own - that was one of the big things that was drilled into my head.

RO: Your bio says you've played with some pretty big names. Do you ever get nervous when you're playing with someone like Streisand?

WJ: No, I don't get nervous from them. The two people I get nervous to play in front of are my piano teacher Stella and David. Everybody else, I feel comfortable and confident.

RO: I noticed the version of "Kashmir" on your MySpace page. Big Zeppelin fan?

WJ: Love Zeppelin. It's funny - my dad would always drive me to piano lessons, and he always listened to classic rock, so I was exposed to a lot of different artists and bands. So on our way to piano lessons, we'd be rocking out to Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac. Then I'd walk into my lesson and play Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Mozart, then we'd leave and start rocking out on the way home again [laughs].

So I've always had this great love of not only classical music but of rock. That's kind of me - I've got the classical background, but I also enjoy rhythm and doing popular songs, and incorporating these things into my music.

RO: Who are a few of your favorite composers and why?

WJ: Hands down, I love Rachmaninoff. No. 1, his melodies just move me so much. When I was in high school, my senior year I played Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 in C minor. That piece just brings me to tears. It's just so moving, and his harmonies are just gorgeous. Some of his chord progressions are just hauntingly beautiful. It just stirs my soul.

And I enjoy not only the piano pieces, but all of his music. It's just beautiful. I've kind of mellowed out over the years, but I used to love playing these crazy technical pieces, and I loved playing [Hungarian composer Franz] Liszt. I played one of his Transcendental Etudes in high school also, and played a lot of different pieces by him over the years. My other top favorite is definitely Chopin. I've played a number of his etudes and different preludes - it's just so romantic and passionate. I always loved the showiness. He's fun to play.

RO: What about contemporary composers?

WJ: Is Khatchaturian ["Sabre Dance" composer Aram] contemporary enough? Honestly, I'm kind of out of the loop on the contemporary composers. I did a ton of the older stuff, but whenever I would do contemporary, it was like pop and other things. I love Imogen Heap. She's piano-based, but she's an incredible producer and arranger. I love film scores - John Williams and James Horner. I'm very inspired by a lot of the film composers.

RO: Technically speaking, what are a few of the most difficult Christmas or holiday songs to play on the piano?

WJ: Hmmm. That's a good question. I'm sure there's really technically crazy arrangements out there, but I've never really thought of Christmas songs as technically challenging if you stack 'em up next to a lot of these traditional classical pieces. I would say the biggest challenge with Christmas music is to make sure it's played in the right spirit and done in a way to glorify and to be reverent.

Quite honestly, that was one of my big challenges in preparing for Houston. Instinctively, I was ready to start creating these big, showy pieces, but it just seemed to be distracting from the spirit of Christmas and the spirit of why these songs were written in the first place. My big challenge was to figure out how to make an interesting arrangement, make a beautiful arrangement, yet still stay in the spirit of what the piece was originally written for.

With the Houston Symphony and conductor Michael Krajewski, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana. For tickets call 713-224-7575 or see

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray