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.

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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, pores like craters, 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

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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 1981 porn classic Beyond Your Wildest Dreams as Simona Wing; Damiano wrote and directed 1972’s 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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My Beloved John Wilson Conducts the Concordia Foundation Artists in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Southbank, November 2010

This 2010 clip was uploaded to YT as a fundraiser in 2020 for Concordia, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting struggling young musicians. My beloved John Wilson was one of those struggling young musicians, and now as guest conductor he leads Concordia Foundation Artists here in a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music from the Foundation’s 15th Anniversary Concert, held at The Queen Elisabeth Hall in London on 22nd November 2010, with a reading of the text by Founder and Artistic Director, Gillian Humphreys OBE. This is the piece that made Rachmaninoff weep.

John Wilson Conducts Concordia, 2010Above: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (1938) performed by John and Concordia.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.
Look how the floor of heaven
Is thick inlaid with patines of bright gold:
There’s not the smallest orb that thou behold’st
But in his motion like an angel sings,
Still quiring to the young-eyed cherubins;
Such harmony is in immortal souls;
But whilst this muddy vesture of decay
Doth grossly close it in, we cannot hear it.
Come, ho! and wake Diana with a hymn!
With sweetest touches pierce your mistress’ ear,
And draw her home with music.
I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Music! hark!
It is your music of the house.
Methinks it sounds much sweeter than by day.
Silence bestows that virtue on it
How many things by season season’d are
To their right praise and true perfection!

~William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act V


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Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Played by the RCM Symphony Orchestra Conducted by John Wilson, October 2018; Plus That Wet Hankie Scene on the TV Show M*A*S*H

The 8th episode of the 19th season of the long-running Korean-wartime sitcom M*A*S*H entitled “Morale Victory” (clip available on my YT channel) is mostly pretty silly—but! Get through all the A-story shenanigans and there’s a surprisingly tight and moving B-story about a wounded soldier/concert pianist which culminates in a 3 1/2 minute scene that makes me cry every time I watch it. David Ogden Stiers (Juilliard, ’72) plays Dr Winchester and James Stephens plays his patient.

MASH Morale Victory 08-19Above: Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major (1938) performed by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson, with piano solo by Nikola Avramovic. Plus watch the clip on my YT channel here.
(Winchester wheels David into the squalid hut that is the officers+enlisted club)
David: What are we doing here, doctor? I don’t want a drink.
Winchester: Good. Because you’re not gonna get one.
(Wheels him close to the piano)
David: What the hell is this all about?
Winchester: Please, David. (from manila envelope takes out sheet music) I’m sure you’ve heard of these.
David: (glances at them) Huh?
Winchester: Pieces for the left hand.
David: Of course I’ve heard of them. What are you suggesting now? That I make a career out of a few freak pieces written for one hand?
Winchester: Not at all. I won’t make any pretense about your physical ability to play concerts. That’s not my point. Are you familiar with the story behind the Ravel?
David: No, and I don’t really—
Winchester: It was written for an Austrian concert pianist named Paul Wittgenstein. He lost his arm during the First World War. He embarked on a long search to commission piano works for the left hand alone. Composer after composer turned him down. But he refused to give up. Finally, he found Ravel who, like him, was willing to accept this great challenge.
(Beat; David considers this)
Winchester: Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.
David: Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift. I HAD a gift! And I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?
Winchester: Wrong! Because the gift does not lie in your hands! I have hands, David. Hands that make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play. But I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live. Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world, through the baton, the classroom, the pen. (points to sheet music) As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.
(Winchester moves David closer to the keyboard. With a look of determination, David begins to play the Ravel. Winchester’s face registers intense emotions, including joy)


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John Wilson Conducts the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra in a Concert of American Classic Film Scores, 18 September 2021

If you can get over to Belgium, this’ll be almost as good as the Proms. Performing at the 5 year-old, acoustically perfect, 2000-seat Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under John’s baton will be offering a Saturday evening filled with old favorites:

Kim Criswell, vocalist

How about making a little party out of it? And if you get there, tell John I said hello.



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Rita Moreno and Jack Nicholson in the Ultimate Penilingism Scene in Carnal Knowledge (Mike Nichols dir, AVCO 1971, rated X) Just for an Old Boyfriend

After Kevin (whose family attended Mass at the same church in Wilmington as Joe Biden) took me to this Jules Feiffer-penned movie playing at a local Manhattan arthouse he had me re-enact it. We kind of looked like this. Oh, I got him there.

(sensual sitar music playing)

carnal-knowledge-jack-nicholson-rita-moreno-1971

Louise: I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble tonight.
Jonathan: You don’t?
Louise: No, I don’t.
Jonathan: Are you sure?
Louise: You wanna bet?
Jonathan: How much?
Louise: A hundred?
(he takes bill from pocket, gives to her; she puts it away)
Jonathan: You sound pretty sure.
Louise: You’re a kind of man…why shouldn’t I be sure?
Jonathan: What kind of man am I?
Louise: (slowly, seductively, kneeling between his legs) A real man. A kind man. I don’t mean weak kind the way so many men are. I mean the kindness that comes from an enormous strength… From an inner power so strong that every act, no matter what, is more proof of that power… That’s what all women resent. That’s why they try to cut you down. Because your knowledge of yourself and them is so right, so true, that it exposes the lie which they, every scheming one of them, live by. It takes a true woman to understand that the purest form of love is to love a man who denies himself to her. A man who inspires worship. Because he has no need for any woman. Because he has himself. And who is better, more beautiful, more powerful, more perfect… You’re getting hard. More strong, more masculine, more extraordinary, more robust… (smiling) It’s rising. More viral, dominating…more irresistible… (happy laugh) It’s up. In the air.

Carnal Knowledge (AVCO 1971, Mike Nichols director) is available on Prime.



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“John Wilson’s Summer Delights” with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Streaming On Marquee Starting 19 June 2021

Just popped up in my queue: bonny John makes a new appearance in my Marquee.tv subscription.


AVAILABLE NOW: JOHN WILSON’S SUMMER DELIGHTS with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra streamcast at Marquee.


Screening Room, SF 1979Above: Eric Coates’s “Cinderella: A Phantasy” recorded by my darling John Wilson with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, 2006.

Program:

MY BELOVED JOHN SPEAKS AT 46:00!

John: I think with Light Music generally one of its primary requirements is to ‘land in the listener’s lap’. It has to have a direct route to the listener’s emotions. You mention the Haydn Wood London Landmark Suite… In the 1930s from about 1933 onward, with Eric Coates’s London Suite, there was a sudden vogue for London—it was an illusory London, but it was very useful for these composers who wanted to express these sort of picture-postcard scenarios in music… Eric Coates did that very effectively with his London Suite in 1933. Now, why did people suddenly start copying Coates? It’s because it was enormously successful… It sold 400,000 copies of the 78 [record] and suddenly of course dollar signs started flashing in front of the publishers’ eyes.

And these three that we’re going to hear tonight are incredibly different individually. What should the listeners be expecting to hear?

John: The tunes are good. Particularly the last movement, “The Horse Guards—Whitehall” which was used as a signature tune for a long-running radio show [Down Your Way, 1946-92]… That’s obviously got a jaunty, horsey aspect to it… The first, “Nelson’s Column”, has a sort of quality nautical aspect to it… And the middle movement, “Tower Hill”, has a sort of thread of tragedy running through it. It’s never profoundly tragic, it’s all a kind of…as I keep saying earlier, a kind of picture postcard, a sort of 1930s-1940s sort of illusory version of what these places represent.

What are the sort of challenges you come across as a conductor when conducted and preparing music like this? 

John: You know, there are a time when there was no division between light music and serious music. But with the advent of broadcasting and seaside orchestras there was a new market for composers who specialized in that field.. And the challenge as a conductor is that you have to get off the page the immediacy of the music, the directness of the melodies and the rhythms, so I think on common levels of snap, articulation, fervor, all those things to bring these pieces to life… It’s, I think, from a player’s point of view, it’s often more than you might actually think. Part of the secret of this music’s success is that it never outstays its welcome. Which means as a player you have very little time to establish yourself. You’ve got to be in the zone and you’ve got to kind of deliver immediately. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing this stuff here with this orchestra for a lo’ of years, so they’re quite familiar with not only the style but what it is I like, so it’s all very happy music making. 

UPDATE! JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR will be available in pdf right after John formally debuts the reformed Sinfonia of London at the Royal Albert for the 2021 BBC Proms on 4 September.


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For the Fourth: “What could be more American than Santana closing the live lesbian love act at the Screening Room in San Francisco, circa 1979?” ~Simona Wing

Just like—oh, say—my beloved John Wilson conducting “Knightsbridge” in Salford being the most English thing in the world…

Screening Room, SF 1979Above my old workplace, “Evil Ways” from the album Santana, 1969. Find Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va?” played by Santana (from the album Abraxas, 1971) in my posting “Cantara Christopher as Simona Wing in the Porn Classic, Beyond Your Wildest Dreams (1981, Gerard Damiano director), Just for the Man I Love, BBC Conductor John Wilson” here.


Here’re my two connections to musician-composer Carlos Santana and his music. One, The Kid attended Santana’s alma mater, Mission High, in our neighborhood the Mission across from gorgeous Dolores Park, where he used to cut classes and take his girlfriend of the moment, wouldn’t you? And two, Santana’s “Evil Ways” was the last number in the live lesbian love act I used to do years earlier with the other girls employed by Katherine (wife of “History of the Blue Movie” Alex) de Renzy, bless her rapacious little heart. Eight freakin shows a day. Tickets ten dollars, and this was 1979. We got visitors from everywhere, sailors and Japanese businessmen and tourists from the hotels. Katherine pushed the Screening Room as a classy joint, classier even than the better-known O’Farrell Theatre up the street, but apples and oranges. I guess naked pillow fights are better suited to some tastes.


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John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Barber, Delius and Ravel, July 2021 Live/Streamcast on YouTube

Recorded at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, 2 July 2021. Available on YT here.


Found the donation window, incidentally. Back in January, 2020 after we heard John conducting them in Tchaikowsky I said to Mister Grumble, ‘That was as good as any small-city orchestra in the US. I’d’ve paid cash money for this,’ and darned if the RAM didn’t just make my life a little easier. Here it is.

Chocolate kisses for my John and a promise to teach him how to make s’mores when the time is right. Above: 2 July 2021 concert at the RAM, in full.

To continue from my earlier posting, “My Beloved John Wilson Appointed to the Henry Wood Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music and Conducts the RAMSO in Arnold Schoenberg’s ‘Verklärte Nacht’ (1899) at Snape Maltings, 6 June 2021”: We talked over beers, Mister Grumble and I, about John’s energy, among other things, a couple of weeks ago. After we toasted Bloomsday, he gave me his take on John and John’s music. Mister G isn’t as enamored of John Wilson’s enormous and varied repertoire—from Broadway tunes to Rachmaninoff to Turnage—as I am, but he has many good things to say about my beloved conductor’s basic character. I described to him (my angel baby is blind) how differently John looks and acts when he’s with the RAM, or the Sinfonia of London or the Royal Northern Sinfonia. Less tense, more in control, more in his element—happier. Plus he doesn’t sweat as much as on the stage of the Royal Albert. ‘Then this is where he belongs,’ said Mister Grumble.

EXTRA! Download PDF of Feb 2020 issue of Gramophone with John’s interview that mentions the Sinfonia of London here.

Program:

  • Samuel Barber / Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op 24
  • Frederick Delius / A Song Before Sunrise
  • Maurice Ravel / Ma mère l’oye, m.62

Cassandra Wright, soprano



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Four by Richard Rodgers: “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue”; “Can’t You Do a Friend a Favor?”; “Falling In Love With Love”; and “I Have Dreamed” All For My Beloved English Conductor, John Wilson

Another weekend doddle before we celebrate the Fourth (Yanks 1-Brits 0).



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Richard Rodney Bennett—“A Collage Artist”; Plus Concerto for Stan Getz (1990) Conducted by John Wilson with the BBCSSO, Andy Scott Soloist

A few insights on the orchestral pieces of the lively and prolific Richard Rodney Bennett (“A Collage Artist” will be the post’s title) to be finished as soon as I, one, get down some notes first on my old boss Mamoulian and, two, actually buy the complete Chandos 4-volume set of the work of John’s distinguished mentor, conducted by John. For now, here’s a recording from a BBC broadcast (yes, bonny John is conductor) that starts off with a few words from the composer himself:

John AlbumAbove my beloved John at 28 and his major musical influence, Richard Rodney Bennett (1936-2012) [download PDF of Feb 2020 issue of Gramophone with John’s interview here]: Concerto for Stan Getz (I know I knocked their album Orchestral Jazz and rightly so, but this is a swell picture)

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My Beloved John Wilson Appointed to the Henry Wood Chair of Conducting at the Royal Academy of Music and Conducts the RAMSO in Arnold Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht” (1899) at Snape Maltings, 6 June 2021

O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! / Es ist ein Glanz um alles her / Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer / doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert von Dir in mich von mir in Dich… ~Richard Dehmel

Look, how brightly the universe shines! / Splendour falls on everything around / you are voyaging with me on a cold sea / but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me / from me in you…

John InterviewAbove my beloved: Leopold Stokowski conducts the 1943, final and most popular composer’s edit of the string orchestra version of this exquisite one-movement sextet based on Richard Dehmel’s poem. (The 1924 version was conducted by Edward Clark of the BBC in Newcastle that year.) Find the Hollywood String Quartet’s version here.

I adore John and his O at the BBC Proms. Honest I do. All that thrill and spectacle. That fetching full dress. And a third of the numbers he’s plucked from The Great American Songbook no one could do better. But last January 2020 I got my wish when my bonny conducted a program of Dean, Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky at London’s Royal Academy of Music and for the very first time I got to watch him work entirely as a conductor rather than a showman. (The cover of JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR is himself preparing for the 4th movement of the RAM’s rendition of Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”. The magazine picture above is from the 23 October concert at RAM.)

It was not a revelation, I knew John was going to be wonderful and the orchestra was going to be wonderful. I’d heard the “Mars” part of Holst’s The Planets that he conducted in Leeds with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (see John above wearing the bright blue NYOGB hoodie) and was impressed with its energy. RAM trumpet Rebecca Toal (heard in Brett Dean’s “Komarov’s Fall”) had this to say about my dear one:

John is particularly generous with his energy and he’s so committed. I think I’ve done one project with him before, and both times he’s just thrown himself into the projects. It’s so nice to have people come in from the outside and completely splash their energy everywhere and leave you feeling on a high and motivated, even after they’ve left.”

And I think this young player has hit it. John [continued at “John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Barber, Delius and Ravel, July 2021 Live/Streamcast on YouTube”]


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