The producer of my last movie took this on his patio near the hot tub. Sorry, but he kept the nude shots.
If this were a Joan Crawford movie she’d have given him the damn gold cigarette case by now.
Portrait of John Wilson by Sasha Gusov. Crawford goes Liebestod in Humoresque (Warner Bros, 1946). I go here.
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.
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 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 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.
* 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.
Anyroad, like a good Dr Watson I have compiled a list:
JOHN WILSON – HIS LIMITS
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…
Was bummed out to hear that John won’t be doing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this month so to cheer everybody up, here’s the FULL 2-HOUR PROGRAM of my John and The John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms, 2013. That’s Jane Monheit, John, and Matt Ford below.
Getting rid of the evidence; or, So you’ve been Banksy-ed, John. Consider it an honor.
A few postings ago (“On Conductor John Wilson’s Full Dress and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, 1”) I said, “I’m in love with John but he plows through Gershwin like a bull moose and treats Bernstein like Bernstein’s Saruman and he’s Frodo.” Well…he was pretty respectful in his “Highlights from Candide” Proms show in 2015, and I have faith that somehow, somewhere during The Bernstein Year (2018) my bonny got through “The Age of Anxiety” with a clear conscience. But the crowning glory of my beloved John Wilson, Conductor‘s relationship with composer Leonard Bernstein is supposed to be, by his own estimation, West Side Story, which he claims he’s conducted “a lo’, I’ve done a few complete productions of it”—so he should know what it’s all about, at least musically, right?
But first, let’s get that other business out of the way concerning John’s WSS attempt of 2018. I HATE HATE HATE to see The Race Card being played. Usually I try to avoid having to address the issue but sometimes it’s right in your face. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you can read about it here. Then read about the outcome here.
Know what I think? In the past few years I’ve begun to believe, and I’m probably coming late to this, that when Orwell was writing about Big Brother, he was really talking about the BBC. This is probably sooo evident to a lot of people, but I’ve been paying steady attention to BBC for only about the last ten years and I’ve watched it devolve in ways previously unimaginable to me, so highly did I once esteem this radio/TV/internet broadcaster. So when I tell you I suspect that it was the Beeb behind that inane shuffling of sopranos and no one else, I do have a basis. (But not to go into that now. I’ll get to it when I talk in detail about Oklahoma!—and The Race Card—again.)
To get back to John, The John Wilson Orchestra, and West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms, 2018. Why the story above tells another possible story: One – soprano announces her withdrawal from the BBC Proms (that is, her reneging on her contract with the BBC) in April; two – five months later in August the new soprano is announced, a blatantly bogus attempt at more politically-correct casting, but anyway; three – at the same time, and only then, the show’s musical format is, for the first time in wide advertising, properly described as the official concert version. Which, let’s face it, makes the racial makeup of any of the singers totally irrelevant. Do you hear me squawking over Kim Criswell doing “Bali Ha’i”?
So in all this hoo-ha there’s John, who has absolutely nothing to do with the matter but nevertheless possibly, probably feels just a bit tainted by it, and who goes to his beloved orchestra with a “Gentlemen, ladies, that’s rise above this, shall we?” attitude, and a “Let’s give it all we’ve got!” kind of gungho-ness I last saw in Back to Bataan.
Because that’s how it came out in the music. Listening to the concert online, I got that same unsettling feeling you get some nights when you suspect your boyfriend’s especially poundy lovemaking isn’t actually directed at you. It was almost unbearable to take. Even Mister Grumble left the room. Before leaving he pointed an accusing finger at me, “This is your John Wilson,” he intoned darkly. “He’s not mine,” I answered. “He belongs to England!” But I couldn’t pull off that Vivien Leigh delivery so that bit just died.
But you know, I think that’s the crux of the matter, John being English and a Geordie and therefore too pigheaded to truly understand the American idiom. That, and Big Brother Beeb breathing down your neck, can cramp anyone’s sense of freedom, freedom of course being the American idiom.
I’m assuming, of course, that John, vaunted musicologist that he is, truly wants to understand the American idiom.
Of the 2013 concert, said Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle: “One of the great revelations of Thursday’s dynamic concert performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony was just how remarkable the score sounds in isolation… Bernstein’s creation stood more or less alone as a compendium of all the musical references swirling around in that great musical clearinghouse that was his mind.”
Above Lenny and MTT: Quartet from the ground-breaking San Francisco Symphony concert version of West Side Story, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Bernstein’s true heir to the podium. Below: The Dance at the Gym sequence from West Side Story. Once again, MTT with the SFSO, 2013, who released the recording on their own label in 2014.
I must’ve seen this movie four, five times when it first came out, when matinees were cheap, and what kept calling me back—besides the lovely, lush, immersive experience of just sinking back into an engaging and sensually-satisfying film in an air-conditioned theater in the middle of smelly, sticky, hot Manhattan—was, of course, the music. I really, really dug the score, just like I really dug the score of Walton (mostly)’s Battle of Britain (@1:20), a few years earlier, and went back matinees to go hear it again and again. Which doesn’t mean I like all of Richard Rodney Bennett; I think I’ve gone to almost every other movie he did a score for and can’t remember the music to any of them.
But this one I could whistle for years, decades, afterwards, and the only thing that recently brought it back to mind was—yes! yes!—falling in love with my bonny conductor John Wilson, the Francois Villon of the podium. Because of his association with Bennett, you see. Oh, they owned a house together or some such relationship [download PDF of Feb 2020 issue of Gramophone here], but that’s not what I’m talking about. Back when John was 28, he and Bennett—and The John Wilson Orchestra!!!—got together to record, as I mentioned in an earlier posting, an abomination called Orchestral Jazz. So I’m figuring that anything my bonny lad knows about jazz has to’ve come from this guy, and the trouble is, I really can’t find anything that would lead me to believe Bennett knew anything at all about jazz, except that he once partnered with jazz singer Claire Martin, and she’s pretty genuine.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, whose first film was about another dozen people meting out justice, 12 Angry Men (United Artists, 1957). Above Jean-Pierre: “The Orient Express“. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett on piano, Marcus Dods conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, 1974.
But when it comes to purely orchestral music, Bennett shows that he knows a thing or two, Royal Academy graduate that he is. I’m glad, because his complete score for the film Murder on the Orient Express (Paramount, 1974) is probably the last example of a type of music they call over there English Light Music, which flourished on and off for about a hundred years since the 1870s, and is defined by easily accessible melodies and lush, decorative orchestration. In other words, music that’s delicious to hear and easy to digest. And while Murder has slightly campy touches in that Ivor Novello-Noel Coward way, Bennett essentially knew who his audience was, and what they wanted.
In an earlier post I mentioned that, since May a couple years ago, I’ve been reading books by orchestra conductors on conducting, in order to better glimpse into the unfamiliar heart and mind of my beloved John Wilson. That classic tome written by Richard Wagner was far out, of course, and going back to some of Leonard Bernstein‘s early writings was deeply nostalgic.
But it was my treatment of a book my bonny conductor had on his public Facebook Likes list that done me in—a thin, and thinly humorous, volume written by a coeval of John’s who let out his dirigental insecurities in a tirade of snark that I answered in kind in a long, 4-star Amazon review that I thought was hilarious, which it was, although apparently only to me. I did this to get John’s attention. I got it. John did not like what I wrote. Hence, he learned how to spell my name ab-so-lute-ly correctly.
Now, Mark Wigglesworth has a 30-year career conducting a number of the great operas and a number of the great symphony cycles, to much acclaim. If there is one thing that John’s friend’s book made evident, in its perverted way, it’s the importance of a conductor being holistically grounded, and Wigglesworth is, as we used to say in the 70s, a grounded guy. Not surprising for someone who has Alan Watts on his shelf; and since the English-born psychedelic Zen guru of San Francisco is one of my guiding lights too, it was a deep pleasure to read The Silent Musician, Wigglesworth’s musings on his inner/outer artistic journey as a conductor. Wigglesworth, from Sussex, is an acclaimed interpreter of Gustav Mahler as well as Wagner, two creative heavyweights who positively require those who would approach their work to have had a fair look first into their own personal psychological-spiritual makeup. Consider Daniel Barenboim—one artist on the world stage I respect the hell out of—and his own moral / philosophical / logistical grapplings with the Architect of Bayreuth (download his “Wagner and Ideology” here and let me just say, if Barenboim figured it out I’m satisfied).
Speaking of Wagner, a few years ago Wigglesworth conducted the overture to a Wagner opera I’ll bet you’ve never heard of: Das Liebesverbot, or, The Ban on Love. I only know about this one because I took the mandatory survey course at music school at the university and never ran into it again till now. So this is the first and only thing I’ve ever heard from this opera:
Or will ever hear, ever again. Just a bit…Mediterranean, wouldn’t you say?
But what amazes me more is the libretto, because Wagner—get this—chose for his source material the scuzziest, meanest sex comedy ever written, which is, of course, Measure by Measure by William Shakespeare. Yes, at the end hypocrisy is vanquished and everyone gets laid, but eeeeuuwww…
Now, think on the twenty-three year psychological-spiritual journey from Das Liebesverbot to this:
I’m sorry, but when I hear that tune I want to see this face.
For the rest of you, behold Maestro Wagner.
I have a heavyweight posting coming so here’re some nice tunes to tide all of you over:
Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky, because the guy refuses to leave.
We certainly all need some tenderness and a couple laughs right now. Below, the wonderful, luminous Molly Picon—who worked with legendary actor-producer-director-impressario-rival-to-Jacob-Adler-Stella’s-dad-model-for-Max-Bialystock-grandfather-of-Michael-Tilson-Thomas Boris Thomashevsky—sings “Oyfen Pripetchik” (MM Warshawsky 1848–1907), an enduring, evocative song from the past that everyone at a certain time, in a certain place seems to have known the melody and all the words to. From season 2, episode 6 of the comedy masterpiece show, Car 54, Where Are You? And really, dig the punch line ending.
Below, a lovely rendition from Israeli singer Chava Alberstein.
Could you say no to this woman?
Oyfn pripetchik brent a fayerl,
Un in shtub is heys.
Un der rebe lernt kleyne kinderlekh
Zet zhe kinderlekh,
Gedenkt zhe, tayere, vos ir lernt do.
Zogt zhe nokh a mol un take nokh a mol:
Lernt kinderlekh, lernt mit freyd,
Lernt dem alef-beyz.
Gliklekh is der Yid, wos kent die toyre
Un dos alef-beyz.