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 spent enough time in Hollywood to understand the position he’s in… As far as gratitude, read “The Trolley Song: BBC Proms 2009″. 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 he’s a musician I pay attention to the music. 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.

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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:

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.

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My First Music: John Wilson Conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 2015, the BBCSSO in 2018, and the Sinfonia of London in Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” (Chandos, 2020)

John conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (who The Guardian described as “a fearless young army on the move”) in “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi in Leeds in 2015; and in Glasgow, where he’s been the Associate Guest Conductor for several years, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Now he’s rounding out his association with this perennial orchestra piece with a wonderfully crisp and sparkling new recording from Chandos with the new Sinfonia of London.

I classify this under My First Music because I first heard this tone-poem in a broadcast of a Young People’s Concert. Leonard Bernstein conducted, the NY Philharmonic played. Listen for the feet of Roman soldiers along the Appian Road, my affectionately-remembered rabbi of music suggested. I think I was 11.

john-wilson-and-the-nyogb2

NOTES for “Respighi: Rome” on Chandos available here. John rehearsing the NYOGB in The Appian Road, summer 2015. Above John: The Villa Borghese.

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Fanfares (Chandos, 2018), an Album by Onyx Brass, Conducted by John Wilson

A recent article mentioning John in 4barsrest, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists, reminded me of the fact that I never did get around to listening to and writing about my beloved conductor’s recording with the Onyx Brass, which I bought 2 years ago this month. I am listening now.

John Wilson & Onyx Brass 2Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where the Onyx Brass rehearsed and recorded this in 2017. Above John: Malcolm Arnold’s “Railway” Fanfare, my personal favorite. NOTES for Fanfares (Chandos, 2018) can be found here. There is no other instrument in a symphony orchestra that calls attention to the manmade-ness of its actual sound than the horn. Strings can mimic the human voice; woodwinds the sound of wind in the trees; percussion can conjure up a hail storm… But you tell me, can the sound of human lips vibrating a piece of metal sound like anything but what it is?

Well, two years makes a difference. I fell in love with John two years ago 2018, that spring. That summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble, and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.

So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle/Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, e.g. this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*

It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.

Which brings us back to this collection of Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.

The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era.  If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.

John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here (see above); as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and yes, Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John Wilson‘s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.

Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last two years.

*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.

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My Beloved Conductor John Wilson’s First Orchestral Gig Since February 2020: Tallis, Saint-Saens with the Philharmonia Online 16 July – 15 August 2020

Great to see my bonny back in the saddle, beard and all. This is the first concert of a series of 3 by the Philharmonia which was underwritten by a private family trust and partnered with Classic-FM, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw them a few extra dollars around this time.


The complete concert is available on the YT Philharmonia channel here.


John Wilson Philharmonia BatterseaThe Great Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre, July 2020.

John’s last appearance before an orchestra was at the Royal Festival Hall back on 27 February,  when he conducted Samuel Barber’s Essay No 1, along with Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Elgar’s Sketches for Symphony No 3.

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Peter Sellers in The World of Henry Orient with Some Elmer Bernstein Thrown In, Just for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor for His Winding Down After Concertizing

Val: I love him anyway. I adore him! You can tell the whole world if you want to that I, Valerie Campbell Boyd, love and adore the great and beautiful and wonderful Henry Orient, world without end, amen. (to Marian Gilbert, shows album cover with Orient’s face) Isn’t he absolutely divine?

Marian: He really is cute…but I thought you said he needed practice.

Val: Oh Gilbert, have you no soul? Of course he needs practice. Especially on the scales. (moans) But this is LOVE, Gil! (sinks back on bed holding album) Oh, my dreamy dream of dreams! My beautiful, adorable, oriental Henry! How can I prove to you that I’m yours?

Val's in Love.jpgNovelist/screenwriter Nora Johnson had an intense teenage crush on Oscar Levant, hence the cute name for Valerie’s true love. The World of Henry Orient (United Artists, 1964) is available on YT in its entirety. The enormously inventive and amusing Elmer Bernstein score, which is best appreciated entirely by watching the movie, is represented here by the sweet Main Title above.

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A Quick Shout-Out to Bob Rafaelson, Carole Eastman, The Monkees, Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, and Five Easy Pieces (Columbia, 1970)

When you dine at a fancy dinner party, a common practice is to “cleanse the palate” between courses with a simple satisfying sweet, like lemon sherbet. Well, that’s what the music of Bob Rafaelson’s creation, The Monkees, is to my sessions of listening+studying music at the table of my beloved English conductor John Wilson: lemon sherbet between John’s more complex courses of Tchaikovsky or Ravel. My personal jukebox:

NOTES: 1) Now isn’t this THE quintessential Laurel Canyon Sound? 2) Music and lyrics by Boyce & Hart (“Last Train to Clarksville”); Carole King & Gerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”); Neil Diamond (“A Little Bit Me”, “Love to Love”); Mann & Weil (“Shades of Gray”); Carole Bayer Sager & Neil Sedaka(!) (“When Love Comes Knocking”); Ben Gibbard (“Me and Magdalena”); Mickey Dolenz (“Randy Scouse Git”) and Mike Nesmith (“Circle Sky”). 3) “Circle Sky” is from Head, that trippy 1968 Monkees movie produced by Bob Rafaelson, written and directed by Jack Nicholson(!!!) and available on YT. 4) As you can read from the above titles, I never got over my special crushy (though surprisingly nonsexual) affection for Davy Jones (“A Little Bit Me”, Love to Love”, “When Love Comes Knocking”).

Five Easy PiecesStalled just outside of Bakersfield, California, on a tinny old upright Bobby DuPea breaks into a polished rendition of Frederic Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. Above Bobby: Arthur Rubenstein plays the complete Fantasy.

Which brings us to the Bob Rafaelson-Carole Eastman classic, Five Easy Pieces, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in September. If you want to talk about The Alienation of The Artist, this film is the perfect jumping-off place. Solid, solid script, one of the best to come out of 70s Hollywood. And then of course Jack Nicholson. A good geeky essay by filmmaker Kent Jones on Five Easy Pieces exists at Criterion.

I know I’m dawdling over that review of Fanfares. Will get to it by the end of the week, lovers of brass ensembles and my bonny John Wilson.

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Marquess of the Gardens of Aranjuez, His Finest Work in the 1995 UK Film, Brassed Off

As I once pledged, I will go almost anywhere my beloved conductor John Wilson leads me; and so it was a remark of his that led me to this movie, which in the mid-90s was an estimable hit in the UK, though not so much here in the States. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”

brassed-off.jpegIn this scene where the ensemble plays the famous Adagio of the Concierto, Tara Fitzgerald shows the lads her superior proficiency on the flugelhorn, inspiring their conductor, played by Lancashire-born Peter Postlethwaite, to consider taking the band on a competition tour and win some desperately needed prize money for their out-of-work members. Above: Joaquin Rodrigo’s entire Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), Richard Gallen, guitar, Moscow 2012.

There’ve been a couple of other, better known (in the US) British films, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, which also address the economic/unemployment crisis in Britain that, back in the 80s, did its part to whittle away at arts education throughout the country, particularly in the north. Like I said, my beloved John Wilson‘s remarks in recent interviews about his early influences started me thinking not only about his musical but general education growing up in Gateshead in the 80s. I’ll take this on in an upcoming post. The contrasts / similarities between his musical influences and school training—as a northern Brit through most of the 80s—and mine—as a midwestern American through the mid 60s-early 70s—I find worth examining, and not just because I’m hopelessly in love with the bloke.

For now, this is what I take away from anecdotal evidence like Brassed Off and John’s childhood memories: The British, in general, seem to be more used to the sound of brass ensembles than Americans. Now, we like to think we know all about brass ensemble music because, being Americans, military marches and Sousa seem to stalk us everywhere we go in this great land of ours. But really, it’s not the same kind of music. I’ll discuss this in my review.

But let me just say this here: I will try to cut John a little more slack when it comes to his choices in orchestration for The Great American Songbook. I mean, if that’s really the way he hears it in his head…

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Yves Montand Sings “A bicyclette” by Francis Lai and Pierre Barouh (1968) Just for My Low Fell Lad, John Wilson, Conductor

It’s been longer than I expected to listen to and review an unjustly neglected (by me) album of fanfares recorded in 2018 by my beloved John Wilson with the Onyx Brass, and since I’d like to do right by this collection—as it actually contains some nifty pieces—am taking my time. So in the meanwhile, here’s a song that came to mind when John nattered on to Edward Seckerson about his boyhood years back in the 80s in Low Fell in Gateshead, not “stoody-ing” music but “pleh-ying” with his bike. (“Play” and “study”are the two main words I use to get into John’s Geordie accent.)

Notes: The intro of “A bicyclette” was (still is?) the theme for Bouygues Telecom. And we all know who Francis Lai is, he’s that Love Story guy.

Yves Montand Bicycle

Quand on partait de bon matin
Quand on partait sur les chemins
A bicyclette
Nous étions quelques bons copains
Y avait Fernand, y avait Firmin
Y avait Francis et Sébastien
Et puis Paulette

On était tous amoureux d’elle
On se sentait pousser des ailes
A bicyclette
Sur les petits chemins de terre
On a souvent vécu l’enfer
Pour ne pas mettre pied à terre
Devant Paulette

Faut dire qu’elle y mettait du cœur
C’était la fille du facteur
A bicyclette
Et depuis qu’elle avait huit ans
Elle avait fait en le suivant
Tous les chemins environnants
A bicyclette

Quand on approchait la rivière
On déposait dans les fougères
Nos bicyclettes
Puis on se roulait dans les champs
Faisant naître un bouquet changeant
De sauterelles, de papillons
Et de rainettes

Quand le soleil à l’horizon
Profilait sur tous les buissons
Nos silhouettes
On revenait fourbus contents
Le cœur un peu vague pourtant
De n’être pas seul un instant
Avec Paulette

Prendre furtivement sa main
Oublier un peu les copains
La bicyclette
On se disait: c’est pour demain
J’oserai, j’oserai demain
Quand on ira sur les chemins
A bicyclette

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A Tribute to Carl Reiner (1922 – 2020): “That’s My Boy??” from His Finest Creation, The Dick Van Dyke Show, 25 Sep 1963; Plus Lionel Newman and the Theory of Swing from Composer David Bruce

The screenshot below doesn’t show where the laughs begin. The screenshot below shows the setup for the BIG REVEAL—leading to the longest studio laugh on American TV.

Rob is Stunned SpeechlessAbove: Pete Rugolo and Orchestra play “The Dick Van Dyke Show” theme, segueing into the theme for the contemporaneous TV show “The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis”.

If you remember viewing it first-run, as I did, you will recall that thrill of being in on the “joke”. And you will most definitely know that—as perfectly and wittily as it is tied to its time and place—this joke will never land ever, ever again.

Anyone here remember the joke? Here’s the entire episode in its new strikingly colorized and sound-sharpened version, Carl Reiner’s last ongoing project before his death.

A few notes on episode 1, season 3: This was filmed just before MI:OS, when G Morris was making the transition from LA disc jockey to actor. M Dillard was already a familiar face on television at this time. The episode was written by the great comedy team of B Persky and S Denoff, who went on to create the TV show That Girl.

Earle Hagen’s Dick Van Dyke and Lionel Newman(!)’s Dobie Gillis themes have got to be in my opinion the swingiest, finger-poppingest themes in the history of TV, topping even Mancini’s Peter Gunn, because of their superior melody lines. The version above is just okay, but I would looove to hear the snap and slide my beloved John Wilson would put into either of these short pieces like he did with his 2005 Grammy-nominated “Beyond the Sea”. Quel dommage, he’s on to finer things now, my bonny is.

By the way, I owe my interest in swing to London-based composer / Royal College alum (1991-93) / YT maven David Bruce—in particular his lecture on swing theory, which set my head back on straight. Thanks, David!

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An Open Letter to My Beloved Conductor John Wilson Re His Wretched Misassumption and My Blinkeredness; Plus Cendrillon, Ella Singing “All the Things You Are”, and Vic Mizzy’s Harpsichord

John! John! I FINALLY figured out why you blocked me on Facebook a year ago, and it has nothing to do with the fact that I saw you in your undershirt.

No, it’s because in that review I wrote on Amazon of your chum’s book (and it was an 800-word, favorable, 4-star review, let’s not forget) I made a casual reference to that classical music site, SlippedDisc. That was it, wasn’t it?

Okay, I’ll cop to the poor joke. Not to my valid assertion, but to the poor joke.

But honey, I got it. Your misunderstanding was entirely my fault. And I want to apologize—like I say, I finally realized that whiff of “scandal sheet” might have put you off. You see, about 12 years ago, after a certain personal relationship of mine had been exposed (never found out the rat) and cunningly misinterpreted by the burgeoning so-called i-press, besides having to deal with the fallout in actual life, I also got decorticated for 4 DAYS RUNNING (four horrible, horrible days) on that notorious site Gawker, which in its heyday was pretty much the Hollywood equivalent of SlippedDisc—only cruder, crueler and much more damaging—so I know what it’s like to be ducked in the swamp, so to speak. Would not wish that muck on my worst enemy.

But, my bonny, by the time you found out I had discovered your markedly public FB page, I had already fallen hopelessly in love with you and had already been blogging about you in, I think, the most charming and respectful terms for over a year (except for the times I occasionally, rightly, flailed you out of nationalistic and/or womanly pride). I am going to bet, though, you weren’t even aware of that when you decided to block me back in July 2019. You cowardy-custard. You could’ve just looked me up. There are places in the cyberworld where your name and mine are inextricably entwined like Baucis and Philemon.

John Wilson Glyndebourne 1Above John making namaste at the premiere of Cendrillon at Glyndebourne, 2019: “Marches des princesses” from Act I of Massenet’s comic opera and the most John-Wilsonish piece in the whole score.

But really, here’s how I know about SlippedDisc: About a year before I fell in love with you I had been following the story of the outrageously dishonorable firing of English, Oxford-trained conductor Matthew Halls up in the boonies in Eugene, Oregon, once a small mellow city where I had had a pleasant experience producing a San Francisco-based cabaret show, but has since fallen into disrepair and racially-underlined civic unrest. I was interested because I recognized Halls’s name from my album of the Goldberg Variations (Halls is also a world-class harpsichordist, and my ears have always perked up to the sound of an interesting harpsichord ever since Vic Mizzy first played his own instrument in his own famous composition) and became fascinated and disgusted. Don’t want to go into the whole story here, but it broke on SlippedDisc and that’s why that site was the first thing which came to mind when I wanted to make a punch line.

Anyway John my love, just wanted to clear that up. I’m looking forward to your first online concert and will try to send you another psychic energy shot [UPDATE: Done 11 Jul 2020 23:30 UK time] before you video record. Meanwhile, Ella will tell you how I really feel about you.

“All the Things You Are”
The Jerome Kern Songbook
Oscar Hammerstein II, LYRICIST
Ella Fitzgerald, vocalist
Nelson Riddle, conductor-arranger
Verve, 1963

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Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Greensleeves” Conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and Some Natter Between My Beloved John Wilson and Edward Seckerson; Plus Monty Python and Round the Horne

Sorry for my shaky handwriting but while listening to this I had a fantasy that gave me the giggles: John being interviewed by my favorite ohne palones, Julian and Sandy. (This more-than-usual musical episode of Kenneth Horne’s 1967 radio show also includes Rambling Syd Rumpo, the Fraser Hayes 4 singing off-key not on purpose, and the screamingly funny takeoff skit, “Young Horne with a Man”.)

Now John, I know that you know, and I know that you know that I know, that my long-distance lovemaking to you is being observed by a few; not many, just a few. So this rundown is for them, love:

In this very-recently posted pod chat with London-based culture maven Edward Seckerson, John talks about his idol, conductor Sir John Barbirolli; von Karajan; Leonard Bernstein; French romantic music of the early 20th century; conducting Massenet at Glyndebourne; reviving the Sinfonia of London; winning that BBC thingie for his Korngold Symphony (and confirming what I surmised in my review re his “austere” sound vs “chocolate sauce”); his other Korngold recording, the violin concerto, also with son vieil ami Andrew Haveron; Richard Rodney Bennett‘s compositional journey of self-discovery; and what we’re all waiting for, what’s up with The John Wilson Orchestra (seems like that psychic flash I had back in April has proven true).

Here are the main points I took away from this podcast: “What I do try to do as a conductor is carry my sound around with me… It’s almost—I don’t really feel comfortable talking about because you know music is basically a doing thing and not a talking thing… My deepest musical creed is wrapped up with how an orchestra sounds…” Which pretty much confirms what I’ve suspected these two years about him.

John, light of my life, fire of my loins, I respect your process.

John Wilson RijksmuseumAbove: John’s 44-minute podcast interview. Below, “Greensleeves” as we’ve all heard it on Monty Python.

Fantasia on “Greensleeves”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer
Barbirolli Conducts English String Music
RCA, 1963 first issue
The Sinfonia of London
John Barbirolli, conductor

23 JUNE UPDATE: Here’s Barbirolli again from that same album conducting Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia from a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which my beloved John Wilson will be conducting The Phiharmonia Orchestra in, in an online concert on 17 July.

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