The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson

Cantara, former ASCAP solfeggist and 70s porn actress turned screenplay writer, has fallen hopelessly in love with a man at the other end of the world, an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor—who plays, on the side, Golden Age of Hollywood music and The Great American Songbook—by the name of John Wilson.

John Wilson Proms.jpeg
The Queen of Heaven smiles upon you, John. I have it on good authority.

Not because he’s a fellow creator (he doesn’t create, but reconstructs, orchestrates and arranges the music of others)—not because of his looks (he’s peaky, scrawny, blinky; his gray-green eyes lack luster; he’s got a facial tic, lousy posture, enormous feet, the limbs of a stick insect and the hands of a hod carrier; his nose is an equilateral triangle; his famous cleft chin, supposedly his best feature, always looks slightly askew; his ultra-short mousy hair can’t conceal the fact he’s already going gray; he sweats like a stevedore on the podium; and for the past few years he’s taken to wearing geek glasses)—and certainly not for his intellect (his fatuous pronouncement about the needlessness of lyrics in The Great American Songbook makes me want to smack the back of his head like the whippersnapper he is and send him home with a note).

So what is it about him?* I’ve only been aware of his existence since 30 April and in love with him since 4 May, 2018; since then my feelings have been an insane mixture of tenderness, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The tenderness I understand: I’ve been in Hollywood long enough to understand the position he’s in… As far as gratitude, read my posts about “The Trolley Song”. Even the raging lust I get.

But whenever John gets himself in the way of the music it drives me nuts. It’s crystal clear to me the times he does this because I’m in love with him, dammit, and because whenever I’m in love with a musician I pay attention to the music. (This has happened only once before; I’ll talk about that one of these days.) Truth to tell, the only times John really gets himself in the way are when he’s conducting his own hand-picked group which is dedicated mostly to music from Golden Hollywood & The Great American Songbook, and cannily named The John Wilson Orchestra.

Whether he gets himself in the way indeliberately or on purpose I cannot entirely tell, but I’m starting to. With a little patience he isn’t that hard to read, my bonny John Wilson. After countless times listening to his recordings and broadcasts; pouring over his interviews; watching him conduct (in video clips, mainly from the annual BBC Proms); watching him conduct other orchestras besides his own (ditto); and, most important, learning to separate the showman from the musician, I’m starting to understand his type of intelligence and his musical capability, which is actually pretty sizable. His ear (the way he hears things, not his purported perfect pitch) is intriguing and his industriousness is admirable. I am definitely not buying into the PR excess—he is not “a superstar”, “a guru”, “charismatic”, “legendary”, “a conducting icon” or, God help us, as proclaimed by the BBC, “the nation’s favorite” (!!!). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

Part 2 “His Limits” here or below.

* Update 10 August 2019: I’ve just read up on what it is about him, and now I’ve got science to back me up. It’s John’s fault.

[all tags]

The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits

Anyroad, like a good Dr Watson I have compiled a list:

JOHN WILSON – HIS LIMITS

john-wilson-rosza-2-copy.jpeg

Knowledge of/affinity for/talent with:

  • English Light Music – Affinity natural; knowledge vast; repopularized Angela Morley, Arnold Bax, Edward German, Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, etc etc etc; recorded over a dozen albums of English light music with Naxos, Chandos etc; wrote arrangement of Fantasia on British Sea Songs for Last Night At the Proms, 2003; creditably conducted Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “Overture di Ballo” at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011
  • English Light Music, Gilbert & Sullivan Division – Creditably conducted Yeoman of the Guard at the Royal Festival Hall in 2009 and Ruddigore in 2010 (my favorite G&S, as “Basingstoke” was the safeword my boyfriend and I used during bondage games); creditably (I’m sure) conducted a concert performance of Trial by Jury with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, spring 2019
  • Classic RepertoireConducted RAM Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s 6th, January 2020. Pinch-hit conducted Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in Dublin with the RTE October 2019. Claims special affinity for Rachmaninoff. Recorded so far 3 albums in a set of Copland, which doesn’t interest me right now. Creditably conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral as well as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the RTE Orchestra in Dublin. But Mahler. Yeh, I’d like John to eventually work up to Mahler’s 2nd (which TONALLY is up his alley). Only by the time he does get to it years and years from now I’ll probably be dead…
  • Classic Repertoire, English Romantics Division – Creditably conducted Walton, Delius, Elgar, Britten; deep affinity for Ralph Vaughan Williams (it’s that Sehnsucht, baby)
  • Opera – Creditably conducted Madame Butterfly for the 2016 Glyndebourne tour; creditably conducted Porgy and Bess fall 2018 at the English National Opera; creditably conducted Massenet’s Cendrillon at Glyndebourne, summer 2019
  • Film Music – Creditably conducted a program of “British Film Music” for the 2007 Proms; transcribed by ear complete MGM “lost” movie musical scores including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis and Singin’ In the Rain, resulting in 350+ (John’s count as of 2016, although his count confusingly goes up or down in successive interviews) pieces of programmable material (for the Proms, for example)—many of which are now of course part of The John Wilson Orchestra repertoire—while the complete scores are now available to orchestras worldwide for symphonic and live-to-screen concerts
  • Big Band/Big Swing – In his early 20s John cut his teeth on this type of music, starting with his stints conducting his Royal College (he’s a 1994 alumnus)/Royal Academy colleagues in the afternoon tea dance at London’s famed-for-its-tea-dances hotels, the Grosvenor House and Royal Park (Times music critic Clive Davis gave the young students a “golden”—John’s word—review) plus The Boatyard, a trendy restaurant in Essex; recorded 8 dance/swing albums for Vocalion; nominated for Grammy 2005 for the soundtrack of the biopic Beyond the Sea (which is really the first time I heard The JWO but didn’t know it)
  • Jazz – John has absolutely no idea what jazz is, yet recorded a thoroughly awful and dishonest album entitled Orchestral Jazz
  • Broadway and the Great American Songbook – DON’T get me started here. I’m blogging about this below.

All the rest is just Cantara trying to sort out where bonny John fits into her inner life. Which as it turns out is in every nook, every cranny

Part 1 “Dopamine” here or above.

[all tags]

King Crimson, Samuel Barber’s Essay No 1, Op 12 and Conductor John Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall on 27 February

Listen carefully to this 1938 piece by American composer Samuel Barber and you’ll hear the stirrings and inspiration for English progressive rock group King Crimson‘s classic “In the Court of the Crimson King”.

King Crimson.jpgAs part of the 50th anniversary of their founding (in October 1969) King Crimson will be touring the States with members of Frank Zappa’s band through summer 2020. Above: Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony perform Barber’s Essay No 1 Op 12.

My beloved John Wilson will be conducting the Barber piece, along with Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Elgar’s Sketches for Symphony No 3 at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday, 27 February.

[all tags]

Failing to Conduct Brett Dean’s “Komarov’s Fall” in a Dream

It was just the other night had a fever dream, running a 101-degree temperature and twisting the sheets, not longing for my beloved John Wilson this time, but trying to fight off an infection. When I finally made it into sweet sweaty sleep I was immediately taken into a strange scenario where, for God knows what reason, I was expected to conduct, with no rehearsal, Australian composer Brett Dean’s tribute to the doomed Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, in front of an audience of 200-800 (the crowd kept stealthily increasing), among whose number were members of the orchestra I couldn’t tell apart and no one was helping me. Being a dream, there were other factors and factors conspiring to keep me from conducting the damn piece: the string section turned into one fella carrying a zither that turned into a floor harp; the stage manager was nowhere to be found and I was expected to run the lights as well; no one would give me a copy of the score. When I yelled out, “Okay, who’s got the tinfoil?” it was then I woke up.

My Beloved John Wilson Conducts Kamarov's FallAbove John: Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Brett Dean’s “Komarov’s Fall”.

The thing is, I’ve never dreamed about conductors before, much less being one myself; never wanted to be a conductor in real life, never even thought much about the breed—until I fell in love with John, of course… And even then the question still keeps coming back to me: Well, what are they good for anyway?

Still in my dream, the moment before I woke up, I heard a tiny voice whisper: Conductors are not disposable. I take this to be a message. In fact I take this to be the message, the one I’m meant to convey. The one I’m meant to conduct. In fact I think I can make a gig out of it.

[all tags]

Massenet’s “Meditation” on the Chandos Label, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw in London, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 in Santiago, Conducted (or, To Be Conducted) by My Beloved John Wilson, 2020

You know, I did a paper on the novella this opera’s based on, The Turn of the Screw, back in grad school. Something about the whole thrust of the story having to do with, ultimately, Henry James’s weird revulsion to/fear of sexuality—any sexuality—gay, straight, bi, kinky, whatever. Which in my ignorant prejudice I took to be typical of all English men anytime, anywhere—until I remembered that James was born not just American but, like my son, a native New Yorker (used to take The Kid to the playground in Washington Square near James’s old house) and he turned out fine. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of textual interpretation OperaGlass Works, who’re engaging John for late March 2020, go with.

Luckily my English born-and-bred John has nothing to do with the story (really, James’s story is a creepy creepy story) on stage. He’ll be conducting members of his very own Sinfonia of London in the pit of Screw and this, mes amis, is a big deal, because this will be 1) the Sinfonia’s first public appearance since John (re)formed it a year ago, so it’s a chance for their fans to hear them in person; and 2) they get to play the music of Benjamin Britten together.

During Easter Week, the holiest week of the year for observing Catholics, John will be in Santiago, Chile conducting a me-tic-ulously chosen student orchestra, culminating in a concert on Easter Sunday consisting of the always-favorite Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3.

John Wilson RAM Jan 2020.jpgAbove John: His “Meditation“.

Lastly, re “Meditation”, that short symphonic intermezzo between the scenes in Act 2 in the opera Thaïs (1893) by Jules Massenet, which my beloved John conducts on his new album (10th cut) and in which Andrew Haveron performs his violin solo like an angel:

Everybody, go away. I’m taking this to a private place.

[all tags]

My First Music: On Conductor John Wilson and His Thing About Percussion, Plus Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” (1883), John’s New Recording from Chandos

I thought it was important to put in this posting’s title the date in which the self-taught French composer Chabrier wrote this enduringly scrumptious piece, the orchestration sounding more like something post-WWI. Yet it was composed during the height of La Belle Epoque. This was the last piece (a reduction, of course) I ever played on the violin in my junior high school orchestra, before switching a couple years later, at 16, to Voice at the University of Minnesota.

As for my beloved’s own especial sensitivity to percussion: Listening to and viewing John conduct the RAM student orchestra last Friday in Tchaikovsky’s 6th—in particular watching John’s very visible reaction to the cymbals in the third movement—gave me some insight into his musical values, which never fail to impress me. I understood the kind of sound he was trying to bring out from that young cymbalist and, had it worked, would indeed have sounded sooo nifty, it would have been John Wilson Orchestra nifty, but alas…

(The sound aspired to, incidentally, was that “snap” I heard the JWO achieve in Beyond the Sea about 16 years ago.)

Lastly, a word about the strings in the fourth movement. Yup, there was that “John Wilson Orchestra shimmer”, that famous wrist vibrato anyone who’s ever picked up a violin recognizes and has to have come to terms with fairly early in training. We used to wonder if it made our playing actually sound better, and it depends. The Russians and Mittel-Europeans used it a lot a hundred years ago. Some call this type of playing now “period playing”. My old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, called this style of playing “Crying Violins”. He claimed it was his idea to use it in the musical Love Me Tonight, in the “Isn’t It Romantic” sequence.

John Wilson Royal Academy 2020 3John’s CD comes out February 2020 (Chandos #5252, Escales)

[all tags]

John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Brett Dean, 24 January 2020

John Wilson, winner of the 2018 Incorporated Society of Musicians Distinguished Musician Award, conducts the Academy Symphony Orchestra in a Russian-themed program: Brett Dean’s 2006 work “Komarov’s Fall”, followed by Academy piano student Bocheng Wang joining the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 “Pateticheskaya” (better known as the “Pathétique”) closes the concert.

The concert is available in video streamcast on demand here.

John Wilson Royal Academy 2020 1 (1) Above John: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, 1995. Most of the “Pathétique” was quite nice, actually. If I had the key, John, there’d be homemade soup on the stove when you got home.

Just a couple things concerning John’s ever-evolving technique. Noticed that in the Tchaikovsky, in the Allegro con grazia he put down his baton in order to use both hands in shaping the sound, which worked just fine and made the second movement the most effective movement of the symphony. In the third movement, that young percussionist played the cymbals with more reverberation, making a less snappy sound—on time, but eliciting a very visible reaction from their conductor. In fact, it was enough to prompt my bonny to take the kerchief to wipe his face out of his pocket with a decided snap, as well as to turn the score page with a snap equally as audible—a discernable message—before taking a moment to humbly submit to the music and end the concert with a satisfying fourth.

[all tags]

John Wilson Conducts Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 6, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, 15 January 2020

Back in 2018 John conducted Symphonies 1 and 2; in 2019 he did the 3rd, the 4th, and the tranquil 5th, and this year, 2020, on 15 January, he’ll be conducting Vaughan Williams’s fairly atypical 6th with the BBC Philharmonic (in a program that includes “In the Fen Country”, also by Vaughan Williams) in Nottingham (according to his management website; the BBC says it’s Salford).

This is the first truly important piece of the year for my beloved conductor. I’m listening right now to Roger Norrington and the San Francisco Symphony perform it, trying to discern the tricky bits John might find challenging. BBC Radio 3 is streamcasting John Wilson’s concert for the month of January.

John Wilson at DoorAbove John: Norrington and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, 1997. Roger Norrington is the conductor who believes in using no vibrato. “Wobble” he calls it.

Here again is the link for the BBC Radio streamcast of Vaughan Williams Symphony No 4 conducted by John Wilson in Manchester, April 2019, good till mid February.

[all tags]