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 Goddess in all her Aspects smiles on you, John.

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 switched 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 compassion, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The compassion I can 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 in my life, actually.) 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” or, God help us, as proclaimed by Brass Bands Monthly, a “conducting icon” (at 46!?). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

Part Two below or here.

* 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.

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, Malcolm Arnold, Edward Elgar, 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
  • 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
  • Classical Repertoire – Special affinity for Rachmaninoff. Has 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…
  • Classical Repertoire, English Romantics Division – Creditably conducted Walton, Delius, 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 “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 with each interview) 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 One above or here.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp: John Wilson Conducting the Sinfonia of London (Chandos, 2019)

I was a fan of Korngold ever since I played violin in The Snowman in the orchestra in junior high (reduced score of course; here’s the full score of the Entr’acte), then as a solfeggist at ASCAP in NY around the time RCA was coming out with Charles Gerhardt’s definitive recordings of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, etc. But then years later in San Francisco I inherited a friend’s collection of Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, which included Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, and all smiles stopped together.

Maybe it was from associating the Previn recording with my friend’s death, but I grew to detest the sound of late Korngold. He began to sound false to me—the result, I reasoned, of all those corrupting years in Hollywood. And Previn was his perfect interpreter, of course. Two Hollywood minds as one… I mean, dig that first movement, doesn’t that sound like a medley of The Ten Best TV Cop Show Themes and Their Underscorings? And then the ringer in the fourth: The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex! I recognize those coupla bars from the movie!

Elizabeth and Essex Warners 1939
Bette Davis portrays Queen Elizabeth, Errol Flynn her faithful but ambitious lover in this sumptuous costume drama. In Technicolor for the Eyes. Warner Bros, 1939.

See, Hollywood lets go of no one.

And so I was content to continue in this apprehension, until Chandos came out last week with a new recording of Korngold’s symphony, played by the newly re-formed Sinfonia of London and conducted by—wait for it—John Wilson. By now, I think I’ve made my feelings clear about John just a little. Whenever he gets really irritating though there’s one thing that I do: I make myself remember the times my bonny lad has absolutely astonished me. The first time was fourteen, fifteen years ago in a screening room in LA when the band from nowhere just ripped into that hack hit “Beyond the Sea” and made it truly soar. The second time was a few years later when I heard the sound, THE EXACT SOUND!!!, of that Ultra-Judy number from Meet Me In St Louis, “The Trolley Song“, only bigger, more vibrant, more—present.

This is the third time.

Who would have thought that a smaller, tighter orchestra, conducted by someone coming in without preconceptions but with a determination to follow through with the composer’s intent, could make a composition sound like an entirely different composition? John said somewhere once that he endeavors to give each musical piece he “takes on board” its correct coloring (which I might believe if he weren’t so damned inconsistent) but here he does the remarkable: Where Previn colors all over the place, trying to make the music into something it’s not, John colors very little. Rather it sounds like, as I say, he actually worked out the composer’s intent to carry him through, and it’s pretty clear that Korngold meant for Symphony in F-sharp to take its rightful place in the Great Central European Repertoire, with its traditional wealth of tonal expressiveness.

So why oh why do some people insist this piece is movie trash? Is it because of that handful of notes from E+E? I swear to God I didn’t hear any other filmic callbacks, and I’m pretty good at catching tunes. But so what if there were? Korngold, unlike the majority of movie composers, retained legal possession of his studio work, which gave him the freedom to rework any of his past themes and phrases as he saw fit. He certainly wasn’t thinking of the flicks once he returned to Europe. Maybe his attachment to these notes was purely sentimental. We’ll never know. It’s a mystery, and I choose to believe that John, consummate musician, respects that mystery.

Anyway my love, as you’ve done with so many other composers, thanks for leading me back to Erich Korngold. It’s a wonderful recording, a keeper, now the standard against which I’m judging every Korngold Symphony in F-sharp out there (and there are a lot of them, not just Previn’s, as you know), and I would’ve bought it even if I didn’t know a thing about you.

Now on to Walton’s Symphony No.1. I’ll be listening on the BBC when it streams.

Dmitri Shostakovich: Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No.1 in A minor Played by Hilary Hahn, With Mariss Jansons Conducting the Berliner Philarmoniker, 2001

In observance of this premier violinist’s one-year sabbatical from music which starts this September, here’s a clip of Hilary Hahn at the tender age of 20(!) making her mark with his exciting concerto. The precision that she, Jansons and the Berliner Phil share takes my breath away.

Shostakovich Violin Concerto Hilary Hahn

Camille Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No.1 in A minor Op.33, Performed by Jacqueline du Pré and Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

On the 12th of September, 2019 my beloved John Wilson appeared at the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, starting off with cellist Andreas Brantelid performing the Saint-Saëns concerto, and finishing off the evening with Holst’s The Planets, Op.32, H.125, which John has perfected to his satisfaction, conducting as he did in 2013 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Leeds in 4 of the 7 Planets.

Here’s the Goddess’s chosen one, Jacqueline du Pré, playing the concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, her husband Daniel Barenboim at the podium. In the time they had, they did not squander the gift that was given to them to make music together.

Jacqueline dupre big laugh

Part 1 [duration 10:15]

Part 2 [duration 10:06]

 

The Earworm That is Knightsbridge, Conducted by Its Composer Eric Coates and My Bonny John Wilson

John recorded Eric Coates’s entire London Everyday suite back in January and Chandos just released the CD. “Knightsbridge”, the last movement, is well-known as the signature tune for BBC Radio’s In Town Tonight. It’s a sprightly march with a grandness that doesn’t sound deserved, which is why I can’t get it out of my head.

Here it is performed by the BBC Symphony for the program British Light Music at the 2900-seat Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011, with 39 year-old Wilson conducting.

john-wilson-knightsbridge-1You really fought for that tympani, didn’t you? For heaven’s sake my bonny, this isn’t MGM.

And here’s John’s new (though not much changed) rendition with the BBC Philharmonic:

 

I’m crazy in love with John but I swear to God, I’ve compared this to the 1932 recording of Eric Coates conducting his own piece and Coates’s is far superior. It’s not meant to be grand at all! This is what the sound ought to be, less boomy-boom and more tra-la:

 

John, we have to talk. The more I hear your musical choices the more I long to get into your head.

My First Music: Original Soundtrack for Picnic (Columbia 1955) Composed by George Duning, Orchestrated by Arthur Morton, and Conducted by Morris Stoloff

According to composer Duning, Picnic director Joshua Logan insisted on using the old standard “Moonglow” (Hudson-Mills-DeLange, 1933) in a critical scene, as had been done in the Broadway play, but demanded that Duning’s love theme be added at a specific point. Columbia’s music director Stoloff and Duning complied, creating a unique arrangement of the song and the movie theme, and it became an iconic moment in 1950s cinema, a pairing of tunes that would thereafter seem inextricably intertwined. [Read more on George Duning from the Film Music Society here.]

William Holden Kim Novak Picnic.jpgWilliam Holden and Kim Novak in the famous dance scene. Cinematography by James Wong Howe.

The entire soundtrack for Picnic was uploaded to YouTube by a thoughtful fan of George Duning’s. Here’s that “Moonglow-Picnic” number:

 

And for good measure, here’s popular 50s singer Dorothy Collins’s rendition from her album Dorothy Collins Sings Steve Allen (Allen wrote the lyrics):

John Wilson and Rodgers & Hammerstein

I started collecting these Moments after getting right annoyed, not when I first heard my beloved conductor John Wilson cheerfully dismissing Oscar Hammerstein II‘s lyrics as being “needless”, not after the 2010 BBC Proms (an R+H tribute) or even the 2017 BBC Proms (Okla-freakin-homa! for God’s sake), but later on when I read about John in Brighton trying to conduct a sing-along with his concert audience in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the way Liverpool soccer club fans like to sing it when they’re winning—a song cue I HATE HATE HATE and would like to strangle the group responsible, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for.

John Wilson Crush SunderlandCrush Sunderland!

The rule for bringing up a Rodgers & Hammerstein song in a Moment is simple: You sing it spontaneously—knowing the words and understanding and conveying its sentimental message—at the right moment. You have to read the moment, John. In the Jack Benny scene the humor is clear because everybody knows the words to “Getting to Know You” and everybody knows about Jack’s musical vanity vs his attraction to pretty talented women; in the Cheers scene, Diane’s song cue is truly meant to comfort and inspire, and so makes for a genuine moment for everybody; in 3rd Rock, well, “Oklahoma!” is just the ultimate rouser. You don’t even have to sing it well. (So a much better sing-along song actually.)

So it kind of heartens me, John, that you won’t be going back to mangling The Great American Songbook for awhile. Here’s hoping you take a long vacation in Bermuda, my Tyneside darling. Get a tan, get laid. When you come back, commit yourself to the orchestral repertoire you do best. Remember, I’m still listening. And you know why.

Gene Kelly’s Widow Patricia Ward Kelly’s Response to Good Morning America’s Ridicule of Male Ballet Dancers

In 1958, my late husband, the dancer, director, choreographer Gene Kelly, decided to take on the stigma facing male dancers in an Omnibus television program for NBC that he created and starred in called “Dancing, A Man’s Game.” He hoped that by aligning the great sports stars of the day—Mickey Mantle, Johnny Unitas, Vic Seixas, Sugar Ray Robinson, among others—he could challenge and destroy the shame surrounding male dancers once and for all. For Gene it was more than a professional task. It was, in his words, a personal “crusade” to show that dancers are athletes and that it is okay for a man to be graceful. As he says in the special: “What could be more graceful than a football player throwing a pass—what is more excitingly beautiful than the swift movement of a double play? Every motion a good athlete makes is as beautiful as any a dancer makes.”

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Gene Kelly and six-time world champion boxer Sugar Ray Robinson.

Sadly, on August 22, 2019, Good Morning America elected to run a disgraceful segment about Prince George and his ballet classes. That host Lara Spencer would mock a boy’s study of ballet in a nationally televised morning show and that her colleagues would join in her derision is both unacceptable and incomprehensible.

Gene was a classically trained ballet dancer and believed that his training was essential to all that he did. He was schooled in Chicago by a woman named Berenice Holmes who had been the student of the great Russian dancer Adolph Bolm. Gene said that Holmes could perform many complicated turns better than a man, including a double tour en l’air, and that she instructed him to dance with great strength, particularly in his arms. He knew that ballet training gave him the long, beautiful line that he sought in his dancing and, later, in his choreography for the camera that led to some of the seminal films of our time, including On the Town; An American in Paris; Singin’ in the Rain; Brigadoon.

Over the years, Gene advised many professional athletes to study ballet, including former wide receivers Willie Gault and Lynn Swann. Both acknowledge that the training improved their performance on the field. Many have followed suit. Gene would be devastated to know that 61 years after his ground-breaking work the issue of boys and men dancing is still the subject of ridicule—and on a national network.

ABC [the American Broadcasting Company] must do better.

Patricia Ward Kelly (Mrs. Gene Kelly)