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 sizeable. 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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Give a Girl a Break (MGM, 1952): The Movie That Clinches My 3-Degrees Connection to English Conductor John Wilson

From Simona Wing to Gerard Damiano to Helen Wood to Andre Previn to John Wilson—Cantara’s three degrees from her beloved conductor.

Julie Andrews, Jon Cypher in Cinderella 1957Give a Girl a Break (trailer here) is a US 1953 musical comedy film starring Debbie Reynolds and the dance team of Marge and Gower Champion. Helen Wood, Richard Anderson, Kurt Kaszner and a young Bob Fosse have featured roles. At only 88 minutes, Give a Girl a Break shows residual elements of the big project it started out to be, with a passable score by Burton Lane and Ira Gershwin, direction by Stanley Donen, and musical direction by Andre Previn.

Degree rule: You have to’ve personally worked with the person in the next degree. I worked with Damiano in his adult hit Linda; Damiano wrote and directed Deep Throat, which Helen Wood (as Dolly Sharp) was in; Helen Wood co-starred in the musical Give a Girl a Break, on which the musical director was Andre Previn; Previn worked on the 2012 Proms My Fair Lady with my beloved John Wilson.

Above Marge, Debbie and Helen: The overture to the 2012 Proms My Fair Lady, with John conducting The John Wilson Orchestra in his own arrangement of Andre Previn’s orchestration of the film score.


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Update On Conductor John Wilson’s 2020 Gigs: Britten’s The Turn of the Screw (March); Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 in Santiago (April); and Massenet’s “Meditation” (Chandos, February)

I once 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 Wilson 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.


UPDATE 14 Nov 2020 : On 3 December 2020 BBC4 Radio will be streamcasting John Wilson and Opera Glassworks. From the BBC webpage:

The conductor John Wilson made his name restoring the historical scores of great Hollywood musicals. With the John Wilson Orchestra, he has been a fixture at the Proms for over a decade.

In March this year, he was at Wilton’s Music Hall in London, rehearsing Benjamin Britten’s Turn of The Screw for Opera Glassworks, when lockdown happened. All the tickets had been sold, the costumes were ready, the set was in place and the curtain about to go up. Then the production came to a crashing halt.

There was too much to lose, and this programme tells the story of how, months later, the opera was re-conceived, re-imagined and rescheduled under the new restrictions we are all learning to live in. John Wilson, along with the producers, decided to turn the staged performance into a film. Wilton’s is the perfect Victorian venue for this unsettling and ambiguous ghost story about the corruption of innocence.

In October, the singers came together again, only this time also with a film crew.

Covid restrictions meant the singers and musicians had to be recorded separately and in the most unorthodox ways. We follow John as he brings his meticulous and inspired vision of Britten’s opera to a new audience and a new format. We hear, day by day, what it was like being on set, how John worked in this ‘topsy turvey’ world as he described it, giving the singers the flexibility to interpret the opera and then later conducting the musicians having to fit round their recorded performances.

‘I do believe in making music for the joy of it,’ John says, ‘and we’re experiencing heightened levels of appreciation at the moment because it’s been taken away from us.’


CANCELLED: 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 Teatro del Lago.jpgNOTES for John’s new CD Escales (Chandos, 2020) can be found here.

RECORDED: 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.


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“A Young Oldman Raises Music for Witnesses”: Conductor John Wilson Interviewed by Prague Daily, 24 September 2007

The following was translated on Google from the Czech and transcribed by me—except for minor grammatical emendations—verbatim:

PRAGUE DAILY | 24 SEPTEMBER 2007 – John Wilson has brought restored film music to the Prague Autumn and is preparing to pay his respects to John Williams.

From the point of view, conductor John Wilson gives the impression of an intelligent young man. He is one of those rare people who is a joy to meet. In addition, he finished a several-hour rehearsal with the Czech Radio Symphony Orchestra. He has prepared a concert for the Prague Autumn Festival, called “Famous Film Music from Hollywood”, which will be performed twice due to great interest. At the age of thirty-five, Wilson has gained a recognition that many might envy. Some time ago, for example, he performed at the prestigious BBC Proms music festival, but he still remains modest and immediately attracts listeners with a helpful, understanding speech.

Prague Daily 24 September 2007Photo: Jan Handrejch. Above: John and his O’s MGM Jubilee Overture.

It surprises me that at your age, you are so interested in early film music. One would expect that a witness would be more enthusiastically interested in the archives.

I would like something really valuable to be left behind. That is why I try to concentrate a large part of my energy and diligence on the restoration of old, often non-existent or directly lost sheet music scores. [I do this] most often in collaboration with the Hollywood studios Warner Bros and MGM. In the 1960s, the MGM studio liquidated its entire music library, which was one of the largest and most valuable of its time. At the time, people simply did not think that film music needed to be preserved for future generations. The only thing that has survived are the movies. I’m trying to correct their mistake now.

Musical archeology

This must be extremely challenging.

Yes, it really is. It is necessary to listen to the whole composition from the film second by second and to the smallest detail. I’ve seen “The Wizard of Oz” at least two hundred times. With all your will and senses, you focus on each and every measure. You must not miss anything if you want to get the most accurate description possible. You spend all day working hard and eventually find that you have two or three seconds of music. You have to be patient, but I think it’s worth it.

Will we hear the result of your efforts at your Prague concert?

Yes. The first in the first part, which will focus mainly on music “for witnesses”, will be heard, for example, the remembered “Wizard of Oz”. In the second half, however, I would like to pay tribute to John Williams. Not only because he is one of the best modern composers of film music, also successful and popular, but also because Williams is more based on  tradition than anyone else. Therefore, I hope that the listeners will notice the context, which I would like to point out non-violently at the concert.

Do you mean, for example, the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, a Czech native famous during The Golden Age of Hollywood?

Naturally. Williams’s orchestration, for example, is almost identical to his. This is clearly evident in “Star Wars”, which, of course, cannot be missing from the program. You must understand that Williams began as a pianist in Hollywood recording studios in the 1950s and came into direct contact with the generation that laid the foundations of modern film music. In addition to Korngold at the time, Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, who is the composer of perhaps Hollywood’s most famous tune, a fanfare of 20th Century Fox, were still active. At the same time, I hope that the audience will recognize how much Williams still remains himself and in the true sense of the word, an original.

Last of the Mohicans

Are you well acquainted with the past of film music, but how do you look at its future?

You know, Williams is seventy-five years old this year, and even though he’s still active and still composing great music, he won’t be here forever. I don’t think there’s anyone in the current generation who can replace him. That’s why I’m afraid the whole era of film music will leave with John Williams.

But that sounds pretty hopeless.

Maybe a little. On the other hand, I am convinced that the hope of film music can be the current generation of European composers, who come up with cultured, intelligent and imaginative music. In Hollywood, on the other hand, music is basically declining, becoming flatter and flatter by the day. Sure, it helps the film become great, but I prefer music that will stand up on its own. My concert is also trying to point out that. I try to prove that good film music is not lost in concert halls.

At the same time, film music is struggling for recognition, and many musicologists still see it as an indecent, used form.

In the words of a classic: “Who ever built a monument to a critic?” I will not say at all what the critics say. The attitude of such people is not so critical or professional, but rather snobbish. But attitudes and opinions are changing. Constantly. In July, for example, I conducted British film music with great success at the BBC Proms, a large and acclaimed festival. No one would have dreamed of that ten years ago.

~ for Anthony Burgess


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My Beloved John Wilson Conducts the London Symphony Orchestra in Barber, Weill, Gershwin, and Copland at the Barbican, 21 Jan 2021

This date was set about 10 months ago, just before the current pandemic took hold, and it looks like this program, entitled “Letters from America”, will be John’s first public performance of 2021. In April 2019 John conducted Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto with the same soloist as in this concert, James Ehnes; and last February he conducted Barber’s Essay No. 1 (part of the melodic basis of King Crimson’s first hit). This concert features Barber’s Overture to The School for Scandal.

This concert also includes a piece arranged by Robert Russell Bennett (“Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture”) and Aaron Copland’s “Symphonic Ode”, which don’t interest me.

However, Kurt Weill’s Violin Concerto (1924) is a revelation and a joy. “I am working on a concerto for violin and wind orchestra that I hope to finish within two or three weeks,” Weill wrote of this composition. “The work is inspired by the idea—one never carried out before—of juxtaposing a single violin with a chorus of winds.” The accompaniment includes percussion and string basses, in addition to woodwinds and brass. Below is Weill’s concerto played by the LSO.

My John rides again.Above John during the pandemic before his haircut and shave: Weill’s concerto played by the LSO with Hermann Scherchen conducting

Except for my End of the Year wrap-up, this will be the last original posting concerning my beloved John Wilson until 2021. Those of you who know exactly where we reside in the US will understand when I say there’s been a lot of scary racial conflict going on here, which has now escalated to a degree that I now worry not only for own my safety, but for Mister Grumble’s (who as you might know is 74 and blind). So I may have my hands full for awhile. (Anyone who cares to, message me on FB and I’ll tell you all about it.)


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Directed by My Old Boss, Rouben Mamoulian: Love Me Tonight (Paramount, 1932) Just for My Beloved Conductor John Wilson

That snooty critic fart Andrew Sarris once mock-praised my old boss Rouben Mamoulian for his early cinema innovations that never quite caught on. Hah! When’s the last time you were so proud of your old boss’s work you wanted to make sure the world never forgot it? So—here’s the most audacious musical film sequence ever directed, which magically links up the movie’s two singing stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald:

“Isn’t It Romantic?”
from Love Me Tonight
Rouben Mamoulian, director
Nat Finston, music director-arranger
Songs by Rodgers & Hart

Isn't It Romantic.jpgAbove the music master and Ruritanian soldiers: Ella Fitzgerald sings this Richard Rodgers+Lorenz Hart perennial, which was scaled down from its operetta length for inclusion in The Great American Songbook.

And if you’re still in doubt about Mamoulian’s genius, check out this opening scene which I uploaded especially for my bonny John Wilson for the beat:

“City Wakes”
from Love Me Tonight
Rouben Mamoulian, director
Nat Finston, music director-arranger

If I had seen Love Me Tonight before I went to work for The Old Man I would’ve been more patient with him. But I was only 23.


The entire film Love Me Tonight is available on my YT channel here.



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Rouben Mamoulian’s Golden Boy (Columbia, 1939) and the Look of Love for My Darling John Wilson, Conductor

Barbara Stanwyck was 32 and a box-office star when Paramount contract player William Holden, 21, was personally cast by director Rouben Mamoulian as the lead in his film based on Clifford Odets’s Broadway melodrama of art vs fleeting fame and riches, Golden Boy. Holden was nervous, awkward, and about to be replaced when something about the young player touched Stanwyck’s heart. She took him in hand, coached him personally and kept him from distractions (like studio publicity)… 

Thity-nine years later, at the Oscars Holden had this to say to the world:

Holden, Stanwyck (Golden Boy, 1939)Above Holden and Stanwyck: There are only a few genuine moments in the history of the televised Academy Awards. This is one of them.


The entire film Golden Boy is available on my YT Channel here



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A Quick Shout-Out to #JohnWilsonConductor, 28 October 2020

This past Daylight Savings (UK) weekend there was a sizeable rise in the number of visits to my blog, “I’ll Be Dead Before You Break My Heart”, and I attribute this directly to the kindness of some person/s in letting my beloved John Wilson know about that perfect screenshot of him at the Royal Academy of Music. Visitor #1 from the UK was particularly intriguing. Visitor #1 may have started clicking on my postings as early as Friday night, and was almost certainly the same person who came back for more the next night, Saturday, returning for three more hours on Sunday morning. What was most gratifying is that Visitor #1 actually seems to have taken the time to read my postings, especially my more thoughtful ones, the ones where I talk about John and his work in the Classical Repertoire. (Visitor #1 almost certainly was the one who also downloaded my memoir of the nutty Gyllenhaals, which was doubly gratifying.) Whether or not Visitor #1 is the #1 Reader I’ve yearned to capture for 2 1/2 years, I’m stoked, and I intend to go on writing, and writing better, for John’s sake—but also for The Old Man, Mamoulian’s sake, who once told me, “Love with style, but also with a little sadness for the suffering involved.“

John Wilson and Rouben Mamoulian


Going Hollywood, Grieving for a Lost Star, “Stereophonic Sound” by Cole Porter, and Two Degrees of Separation from My Beloved English Conductor, John Wilson

It actually would hurt me, John Wilson my beloved, if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you—as more or less part of his gig rather than as who you are, which is to say John Wilson. Something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching the pre-2013 Family Guy anyway. Nothing personal against your chum.

John WIlson with MacFarlane

No, I lie, it’s personal.

About ten, no, eleven years ago the best friend of the son of my (now ex-) friend died unexpectedly in New York, and it was a shock to everyone. My own son, who was the same age, was a big, big fan of his—more than a fan, in fact, he practically worshipped this young actor—and was in tears that day. I texted my friend and we shared our shock and grief. Daniel Day-Lewis stopped an interview, sobbing, “I didn’t know him, I have a strong impression I would have liked him very much…and so looked forward to the work he would do in the future.” I’d so like to have witnessed this young man’s progress on screen and stage through the years myself. He was the new Brando—better than Brando, in fact, as he not only acted and directed but wrote as well. And he wasn’t even thirty. He was handsome and vigorous, he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was the most committed actor I’d seen on screen since Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.

So there he was dead in NY. On the streets of Beverly Hills, some roving celebrity reporter from one of the gossip shows was out and about getting sound bits for his show, and came across Rob Lowe and MacFarlane. After some genial exchange of bullshit the rover blurted, Did you hear the news from New York? and without a pause went right into giving them the news. Lowe dropped his mask, truly stunned for a moment, and turned human, while MacFarlane drawled almost offhandedly, “We-ell, this is disconcerting…” And at that moment I started to genuinely dislike the calculating little creep. MacFarlane’s an almost supernaturally gifted dealmaker, Stewie’s a pretty inspired animated character, and the guy seems to have a genuine fondness for the old styles…but that just isn’t enough for my scorecard. If you could say that there’s such a thing as a Seth MacFarlane Tolerance Level, mine’s pretty low I guess.

Anyway, I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. And I tend to take things like that hard. Not exactly an asset around here.

On another note:

“Stereophonic Sound”
Silk Stockings, MGM 1957
Janis Paige, Fred Astaire
Rouben Mamoulian, director
Andre Previn, music director

As I said in an earlier post, I’m three degrees away from my beloved John Wilson with one particular MGM musical, Give a Girl a Break, as the bridge. But! I’m only TWO degrees away from the man I love with this MGM musical, Silk Stockings—from me to Rouben Mamoulian to Andre Previn to John.

Silk Stockings was adapted from the 1955 stage musical of the same name, which itself was an adaptation of the film Ninotchka (MGM, 1939). It was directed by my old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, produced by Arthur Freed, and stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse (who wound up as Mamoulian’s neighbor on Schuyler Road). Musical director was Andre Previn. It was the last movie Mamoulian, aka The Old Man, ever did (at 60—he died at 90), and “Stereophonic Sound” is one of the numbers on John Wilson+Orchestra’s 2014 Cole Porter album. But watch the clip instead. Janis Paige is the focus in this number but Fred Astaire at 58 is still a joy.


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John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Richard Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” and Gives Me a Perfect Screenshot, 23 October 2020

I don’t know what I’ve done to please the gods but this morning, somehow, I took a perfect screenshot of John conducting, while watching the (UK time) 7:30pm performance of the Royal Academy of Music (Finzi, Strauss). This I gladly release to the world. Only, people, if you let him know about this picture will you also let him know who took the shot?

John Wilson Conducting the RAM Oct 2020 Above perfectly rendered John: Herbert von Karajan conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” (1983).


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Venera Gimadieva Sings Salammbo’s Aria by Bernard Herrmann, Backed by The John Wilson Orchestra (BBC Proms, 2013)

Gimadieva made her UK debut at the Proms with John and the John Wilson Orchestra in their program Hollywood Rhapsody, which included pieces by my favorite screen composer Bernard Herrmann. I’ve been a fairly knowledgeable fan of Herrmann since my teen years, but somehow I never got around to hearing the entire aria until—yes! yes! are you getting bored hearing this again?—I fell in love totally and completely with English conductor John Wilson and craved to hear all the music that he is part of. To my delight, he backed this brilliant singer well.

I'd be jealous except she's such a wonderful singerAbove my bonny John making nicey-nice with a soprano for once: “O cruel!” (Salammbo’s aria) from the film Citizen Kane. Herrmann planned to write an entire opera based on this scandalous Flaubert novel but, daunted by the task, as Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff before him, never got around to it.

And for good measure, here’s Gimadieva doing Donizetti’s “O luce di quest anima” with The Hallé the way I’d like to have sounded in my last trimester jury at music school.


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Chanticleer Sings Gerald Finzi’s “My Spirit Sang All Day” Just for My Beloved John Wilson; Plus John’s Streamcast Conducting the RAMSO in Strauss, Finzi 23 October 2020

Hosted by the Royal Academy of Music, this concert of their Symphony Orchestra, conducted by my beloved John Wilson, will be broadcast live on Facebook and YouTube from the Duke’s Hall, Friday, 23 October 2020, 11:30 AM – 1:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time. A link to the stream will be available here on YT shortly before the performance.

The program:

“ChanticleerAbove the San Francisco-based all-male choral group, Chanticleer: Gerald Finzi’s tuneful setting of English physician-poet Robert Bridges’s love poem to his wife, Joy.

My spirit sang all day
O my joy.
Nothing my tongue could say,
Only my joy!
My heart an echo caught
O my joy,
And spake,
Tell me thy thought,
Hide not thy joy.
My eyes gan peer around,
O my joy,
What beauty hast thou found?
Shew us thy joy.
My jealous ears grew whist;
O my joy
Music from heaven is’t
Sent for our joy?
She also came and heard;
O my joy,
What, said she, is this word?
What is thy joy?
And I replied,
O see,
O my joy,
‘Tis thee, I cried,
’tis thee:
Thou art my joy.

~Robert Bridges (1844-1930)


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