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 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 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 sympathy, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The sympathy I can understand: I’m at the height of my maturity, he’s at the beginning of his… 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 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.

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, Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar, Edward German, Eric Coates, Robert Farnum, Hubert Parry, 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) 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.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” by David Raksin, Arranged by Angela Morley, and Performed by The John Wilson Orchestra Conducted by My Beloved John Wilson

My darling lad was 30 when he recorded, with the orchestra that bears his name, the album Soft Lights and Sweet Music: Classic Angela Morley* Arrangements (Vocalion, 2002), which includes this achingly tender theme.

I saw The Bad and the Beautiful for the first time in New York when I was 20, at one of those great cinema art houses, the Little Carnegie I think. Anyone remember that fabulous nosh pit in the lobby of the Little Carnegie? It was set up to resemble an outdoor Parisian cafe, complete with wrought tables and chairs, painted scenery, etc…  Here after the show my date treated me to a glass of cabernet and a flaky meat pasty, the leftovers of which the waiter wrapped up for me in a square of foil he molded into the shape of a swan.

The Bad and the Beautiful 2What do you do when you’re a passionate actress still in love with a wounding bastard who’s a screen genius? You make the damn movie.

As for Bad+Beautiful: Cast headed by Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Gloria Grahame, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gilbert Roland, Walter Pigeon. Vincent Minnelli helmed. MGM, 1952. 5 Oscar wins. To feel the full effect, get your heart stomped on by a Hollywood louse before viewing.

*Oscar-winning transsexual composer-arranger Angela Morley (1924-2009) has quite a story herself, which maybe I’ll get to in another posting. For now, here’s a 1977 article in the Independent that should whet your appetite.

A Brief Memory of John Wilson and Orchestra Doing Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Proms and the Coup d’Etat Attempt in Ecuador, 2010

I’m all right, Mister Grumble’s all right. We’ve lived through an East Village tenement fire, an armed coup d’etat attempt in South America and the San Francisco Earthquake of ‘89, so this [fill in current disaster] is nothing.

BBC Proms Ruth Rogers.jpgThe John Wilson Orchestra string section warming up at the 2010 Proms.

Ah, the coup. The coup—actually the attempted coup—was part of the CIA’s plan to oust popular Ecuadorian leftist president Rafael Correa by inciting the federal police in Quito to violently demonstrate for a pay raise. Normal TV broadcasts suspended, the government broke in on a rerun of Las Zuquillo, damn; on the phone the American Embassy told us not to worry, if the borders closed they’d send a car to fetch us; and we (the downstairs neighbors—Cuban refugees—and I, Mister Grumble having entirely lost his sight by then) spent the rest of the day watching for tanks to come rolling down the Autopista Rumiñahui, a major road into the city, which got Mister Grumble all reminiscent of the time in ’68 when Soviet tanks rolled down the streets of Prague, resulting in Army Intelligence sending him into Czechoslavakia. (His mission—which turned out fatal for everyone but my sweet baby—was declassified so I guess I can tell the story, but not now.)

But listen: Some weeks before the coup, while Mister Grumble was going blind, I was desperately looking for some entertainment we could both enjoy and found online BBC Radio on Demand—this was back in the days when there was Radio 4, Radio 4 Extra and Radio 5…now all gone. It was on, I think, 23 August 2010 they advertised on their news feed a live broadcast that evening of an all-Rodgers & Hammerstein concert at the Royal Albert Hall, to be headed by a “brilliant young conductor” named John Wilson. “The music of Rodgers & Hammerstein as you’ve never heard it before!” promised the Beeb. And oh, I was hungry for a little bit of America, of home.

“Do you want to hear it?” I called to Mister Grumble across our atypically vast living room.

“Where’s it coming from?”

“England,” I told him.

“Are you kidding!?” he answered with a derisive laugh. And that was that.

A few years later I finally found the whole show on YouTube. To my chagrin, I found it absolutely undistinguished—except for this fabulous number that almost completely redeems my beloved John.

Oh, the coup ended that night—troops loyal to Correa busted him out of the barracks where he was being held prisoner. It made great TV.

My Amazon Review of Waving, Not Drowning by “Barrington Orwell” and Lev Parikian

There must be 17 people in the entire world for whom this book has any relevance. I am not one of them.

I, however, have fallen hopelessly in love with an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor, and this book was on his Facebook Likes List, and since nowadays I will follow (almost) anywhere my beloved John Wilson leads me, here we are. Why else would I not only purchase, but listen to, Freakin 58 Fanfares Played by the Onyx Brass and Geraldo’s Greatest Dance Hits—which nevertheless I have come to adore?

What the argument of the esteemed late fictional dirigent, Barrington Orwell speaking through his still-living amanuensis, Lev Parikian, seems to be is that the career of an orchestral conductor is not a happy one. It is of course a hazardous profession, notorious for causing insanity, emotional instability, ruined health and, in at least one case I read about in Slipped Discwhen a woman in Brighton rushed the stage during a performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein and stabbed the conductor with a no.2 Dixon-Ticonderoga shrieking, “You have desecrated the music of my people!”—homicide. But Orwell, or Sir Barry if you prefer, so reverences the lofty position he himself holds that he places the blame for dirigental woes everywhere but on the dirigent himself: on the uncooperative/disrespectful weather; or concertmaster; or soloist; or composer; or entire orchestra—choose one. Or all. I’m surprised he didn’t bring up Bernstein vs the BBCSO, but maybe the English were right on that one.

Unfortunately, in no way has this slight volume helped me better grasp the mind of my beloved, although it managed to identify his type. When not on the podium he wears neither Armani nor Hugo Boss but rather attires himself in jeans, trainers, horn-rimmed glasses and, because of his preternaturally long arms, blue bespoke shirts. I think he’s about 11 stone. Apparently off the podium he’s a combination of The Scholar and Mister Shouty-Scary. On the podium, in full formal dress, he is a god.

Waving Not DrowningFind my review on Amazon here.

Which brings me to the theory of which I am the author: The conductor exists not for the orchestra, not for the composer living or dead (Good grief! Whoever had that idea?), but for the audience. Whether from a box at the opera or from the floor at the Royal Albert, the conductor is the friend, philosopher and guide we require and as such (except for that dishy second-desk violinist with the golden locks) ought to be our sole focus. Yes, it is a weighty role that demands an enormous amount of conviction and honest purpose in those foolhardy enough to accept it. But remember that it is We, the People, aka The Audience, who ultimately hold a conductor’s success or failure in our own sweaty hands.

So, My Beloved John Wilson, When Are You Going to Conduct Vaughan Williams’s 6th? (Answer Below!!!)

I see your master plan, John. You did Symphonies 1 and 2 last year; this year you’re doing 3, 4, and 5 (but not in that order). And considering the rest of the year you’re going to be busying yourself with Massenet, then the Proms (two shows Friday, 9 August), then I suppose you’ll go on tour with The JWO for the holiday season. So…I’m figuring sometime early next year for no. 6, right? If not early next year, sometime next year…?*

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 6 in E Minor
Sir Roger Norrington, Conductor
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (1997)

* I was right! My bonny’s performing Vaughan Williams’s 6th in Nottingham on 15 January 2020 with the BBC Philharmonic (in a program that includes “In the Fen Country”, also by Vaughan Williams).

Roger NorringtonNorrington is the conductor who believes in using no vibrato. “Wobble” he calls it.

And what about 7, 8 and 9? Are we going to hear them next year, or the year after? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. It’s Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no. 6 I’m really after. What a strange piece of music. Even without comparing it to Symphonies 1 through 5, it’s still a strange piece, though intriguing enough for me to want to listen to again and possibly again. (And of course I am eager to hear you, flame of my heart. What a wondrous thing you’ll make of it…)

 

West Side Story Performed by The John Wilson Orchestra and Conducted Oedipally by John Wilson at the BBC Proms, August 2018, for Leonard Bernstein’s 100 Year Anniversary

Oh where do I start? More later.

Lenny ShirtlessBetty Comden with Lenny in the apartment he shared with Adolph Green, circa 1941. Console yourself with this hot pic, people, till I come back and flesh out this posting.

John Wilson Discourses Upon Leonard Bernstein at Birmingham Symphony Hall, 24 January 2018

Really, I’m going to have to start collecting these pronouncements.

John Wilson on BersteinStephen Maddock, CEO of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, who manages to insert the word Gesamtkunstwerk into all his conversations, lets the flame of my heart have a go at Leonard Bernstein.

My bonny John at 7:55: “The music is of such importance it actually unlocks some of the questions as to what people are meant to be doing and thinking on stage. I’ve done West Side Story a lo’, I’ve done a few complete productions of it and whenever you are unsure of how to turn something dramatically you look in the score and the subito or the hairpin will actually give you the direction of what’s happening on the stage in every bar.”

John honey, there are these things musicals have called books

And at 5:45: “He was writing these musicals to make some money… Because, you know, he had a wife and she wanted to live in a certain amount of style and he wanted, uh, some kind of security and…between 1943 with Oklahoma and 1965, 68, you have a fifteen-year period when there was greaaat money to be made on the Broadway stage, and he made no secret about it, you know… He wrote Wonderful Town in three weeks because he wanted to cash in…”

John my love, we will have to have a talk over a bot’le a’Broon one of these days, won’t we?

Letter to Leonard Bernstein from Felicia Montealegre, Late 1951

My bonny conductor John Wilson’s stunningly ignorant and thoughtlessly glib dismissal of Bernstein’s marriage to Felicia Montealegre brought me back to this extremely private but deeply moving letter, published in a collection by Yale U Press in 2013. This was written around the time she had just married Bernstein and was still working in television:

Lenny and Felicia

Darling,

If I seemed sad as you drove away today it was not because I felt in any way deserted but because I was left alone to face myself and this whole bloody mess which is our “connubial” life. I’ve done a lot of thinking and have decided that it’s not such a mess after all.

First: we are not committed to a life sentence—nothing is really irrevocable, not even marriage (though I used to think so).

Second: you are a homosexual and may never change—you don’t admit to the possibility of a double life, but if your peace of mind, your health, your whole nervous system depend on a certain sexual pattern what can you do?

Third: I am willing to accept you as you are, without being a martyr or sacrificing myself on the L.B. altar. (I happen to love you very much—this may be a disease and if it is what better cure?) It may be difficult but no more so than the “status quo” which exists now—at the moment you are not yourself and this produces painful barriers and tensions for both of us—let’s try and see what happens if you are free to do as you like, but without guilt and confession, please!

As for me—once you are rid of tensions I’m sure my own will disappear. A companionship will grow which probably no one else may be able to offer you. The feelings you have for me will be clearer and easier to express—our marriage is not based on passion but on tenderness and mutual respect. Why not have them?

I know now too that I need to work. It is a very important part of me and I feel incomplete without it. I may want to do something about it soon. I am used to an active life, and then there is that old ego problem.

We may have gotten married too soon and yet we needed to get married and we’ve not made a mistake. It is good for us even if we suffer now and make each other miserable—we will both grow up some day and be strong and unafraid either together or apart—after all we are both more important as individuals than a “marriage” is.

In any case my dearest darling ape, let’s give it a whirl. There’ll be crisis (?) from time to time but that doesn’t scare me any more. And let’s relax in the knowledge that neither of us is perfect and forget about being HUSBAND AND WIFE in such strained capital letters, it’s not that awful!

There’s a lot else I’ve got to say but the pill has overpowered me. I’ll write again soon. My wish for the week is that you come back guiltless and happy.

F

from The Leonard Bernstein Letters
edited by Nigel Simeone
Yale University Press, 2013