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, 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 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; I’ll talk about that one of these days.) 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.

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:

  • English Light Music – Affinity natural; knowledge vast; repopularized Angela Morley, Arnold Bax, 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; creditably conducted Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “Overture di Ballo” at the Royal Festival Hall in 2011
  • 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
  • Classic RepertoireConducted RAM Symphony Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s 6th, January 2020. Pinch-hit conducted Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in Dublin with the RTE October 2019. Claims special affinity for Rachmaninoff. 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…
  • Classic Repertoire, English Romantics Division – Creditably conducted Walton, Delius, Elgar, 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 a program of “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 in successive interviews) 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 1 “Dopamine” here or above.

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Renée Fleming Sings L’air du Miroir from Jules Massenet’s Thaïs, Metropolitan Opera, 2015

Thais Fleming Met

Oh, be quiet,
unpitying voice that to me says
‘Thaïs, thou wilt grow old !’
Some day then,
Thaïs would no longer be Thaïs!
No! No! I cannot believe it
and if there are naught to safeguard beauty,
sovereign secrets and magic practices,
thou Venus, answer me for its eternity.
Venus invisible and ever present! Venus
enchantment of the gloom, answer me!

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My First Music: On Conductor John Wilson and His Thing About Percussion, Plus Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” (1883), John’s New Recording from Chandos

I thought it was important to put in this posting’s title the date in which the self-taught French composer Chabrier wrote this enduringly scrumptious piece, the orchestration sounding more like something post-WWI. Yet it was composed during the height of La Belle Epoque. This was the last piece (a reduction, of course) I ever played on the violin in my junior high school orchestra, before switching a couple years later, at 16, to Voice at the University of Minnesota.

As for my beloved’s own especial sensitivity to percussion: Listening to and viewing John conduct the RAM student orchestra last Friday in Tchaikovsky’s 6th—in particular watching John’s very visible reaction to the cymbals in the third movement—gave me some insight into his musical values, which never fail to impress me. I understood the kind of sound he was trying to bring out from that young cymbalist and, had it worked, would indeed have sounded sooo nifty, it would have been John Wilson Orchestra nifty, but alas…

(The sound aspired to, incidentally, was that “snap” I heard the JWO achieve in Beyond the Sea about 16 years ago.)

Lastly, a word about the strings in the fourth movement. Yup, there was that “John Wilson Orchestra shimmer”, that famous wrist vibrato anyone who’s ever picked up a violin recognizes and has to have come to terms with fairly early in training. We used to wonder if it made our playing actually sound better, and it depends. The Russians and Mittel-Europeans used it a lot a hundred years ago. Some call this type of playing now “period playing”. My old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, called this style of playing “Crying Violins”. He claimed it was his idea to use it in the musical Love Me Tonight, in the “Isn’t It Romantic” sequence.

Blessings of Sarasvati On You My Beloved John WilsonJohn’s CD comes out February 2020 (Chandos #5252, Escales)

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John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Brett Dean, 24 January 2020

John Wilson, winner of the 2018 Incorporated Society of Musicians Distinguished Musician Award, conducts the Academy Symphony Orchestra in a Russian-themed program: Brett Dean’s 2006 work “Komarov’s Fall”, followed by Academy piano student Bocheng Wang joining the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 “Pateticheskaya” (better known as the “Pathétique”) closes the concert.

The concert is available in video streamcast on demand here.

John Wilson Royal Academy 2020 1 (1) Above John: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, 1995. Most of the “Pathétique” was quite nice, actually. If I had the key, John, there’d be homemade soup on the stove when you got home.

Just a couple things concerning John’s ever-evolving technique. Noticed that in the Tchaikovsky, in the Allegro con grazia he put down his baton in order to use both hands in shaping the sound, which worked just fine and made the second movement the most effective movement of the symphony. In the third movement, that young percussionist played the cymbals with more reverberation, making a less snappy sound—on time, but eliciting a very visible reaction from their conductor. In fact, it was enough to prompt my bonny to take the kerchief to wipe his face out of his pocket with a decided snap, as well as to turn the score page with a snap equally as audible—a discernable message—before taking a moment to humbly submit to the music and end the concert with a satisfying fourth.

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John Wilson Conducts Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 6, Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, 15 January 2020

Back in 2018 John conducted Symphonies 1 and 2; in 2019 he did the 3rd, the 4th, and the tranquil 5th, and this year, 2020, on 15 January, he’ll be conducting Vaughan Williams’s fairly atypical 6th with the BBC Philharmonic (in a program that includes “In the Fen Country”, also by Vaughan Williams) in Nottingham (according to his management website; the BBC says it’s Salford).

This is the first truly important piece of the year for my beloved conductor. I’m listening right now to Roger Norrington and the San Francisco Symphony perform it, trying to discern the tricky bits John might find challenging. BBC Radio 3 is streamcasting John Wilson’s concert for the month of January.

John Wilson at DoorAbove John: Norrington and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, 1997. Roger Norrington is the conductor who believes in using no vibrato. “Wobble” he calls it.

Here again is the link for the BBC Radio streamcast of Vaughan Williams Symphony No 4 conducted by John Wilson in Manchester, April 2019, good till mid February.

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A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” by Romberg and Hammerstein, Sung by Helen Traubel in Deep In My Heart (MGM, 1954)

From the 1928 operetta The New Moon and used again in the tune-filled MGM biopic of Sigmund Romberg.

Kim Criswell sang a rendition of this hot, sinuously HOT number in John’s 5 January 2020 concert in Stockholm. In fact I can’t believe he stood on the same stage when she sang this song and failed to be incinerated. But that’s just John I guess.

Softly As in a Morning Sunrise

Lyrics, like every Songbook song dedicated to my John, are from memory:

Softly, as in a morning sunrise
The light of love comes stealing
Into a newborn day
O, flaming with all the glow of sunrise
A burning kiss is sealing
The vow that all betray
For the passions that thrill love
And lift you high to heaven
Are the passions that kill love
And let you fall to hell
So ends each story
Softly, as in an evening sunset
The light that gave you glory
Will take it all away

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My First Music: Miklós Rózsa’s Ben Hur Suite, Conducted by John Wilson and Played by The John Wilson Orchestra, BBC Proms 2013

I was just looking at the schedule for my bonny lad’s month of January 2020 and it’s pretty hoppin’: that concert of showtunes in Stockholma couple afternoons of Vaughan Williams in the Midlands; an afternoon of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Brett Dean at the Royal Academy; on the 20th a free talk at his alma mater, the Royal College of Music, with Durham-born Sir Thomas Allen, about his, John’s, life story. I’d be interested in hearing my bonny’s free talk, if only to find out if he’s honed his storytelling skills yet. (Which would require actually listening to him, a transcript wouldn’t be sufficient.) The rest is pretty ho-hum. I’m wondering if John ever remembers the old days and compares them to his life now. Can you imagine what fun this must’ve been to conduct?

John Wilson Rosza 4.jpgSaw Ben-Hur (20th Century Fox, 1959) first run years ago with my very Catholic mom so I remember the music as Holy music. Then after that, as Monty Python music.

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Conductor John Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, and My Old Boss, Classic Film/Stage Director Rouben Mamoulian: Laying It On the Table At the End of the Year 2019, Part 1

John: You’re a pure musician, a true musician, you command the finest magical mechanism Western Civilization has ever achieved, the symphony orchestra, and you do this for a living. All life is asking you to do is be cool with it, that and my tender feelings for you.

Now, there are more compelling subjects in the world of music appreciation (like was Mozart poisoned, or who was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, or should Concert A be tuned to 432MHz instead of 440MHz) than ranting about the inane and vaguely insulting blatherings on the podium of a popular, middle-ranking English conductor. But I happen to have fallen in love with that conductor. And so it’s probably the case that I listen to that conductor’s pronouncements a little more acutely, a little more discerningly than I would, say, Michael Tilson Thomas’s or Maestro Mauceri’s. It’s just that you reveal more about yourself in your out-loud asides than I think you’d prefer, John.

So as much as I’d relish taking the time to dress you down for the impudent, thoughtless and ultimately self-revealing remarks you made about Mmes Bernstein and Coates, I really should finally get down to the one single thing (aside, of course, from your tearass tempi, your overuse of percussion, your rushing of singers, your astonishing lack of color in certain critical pieces) that has bugged me since the day I first encountered it: your juvenile dismissal of my old boss, film/stage director Rouben Mamoulian, and his creative contribution to the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! Now, I know you were only riffing off info you got in some book or from Andre Previn, who probably socialized with The Old Man when they were both at MGM. But, like I mentioned in an old posting, of all his stage and screen work The Old Man liked to talk about, the one he liked to talk about the most was Oklahoma! And I turned out to be his perfect audience, because early on I’d confessed to him that I was a big Rodgers & Hammerstein fan. (Filipinos are big Rodgers & Hammerstein fans, for obvious reasons.)

But before I say another word about Oklahoma! I have to tell you all now a side story about Mamoulian and Eugene O’Neill. It’s a doozy and it has everything to do with the point of this posting.

John and Mamoulian 2Rouben Mamoulian and John Wilson at around the same age, 80 years apart.

MAMOULIAN’S AND MY EUGENE O’NEILL STORY

This is the second story Mamoulian, The Old Man, ever told me, which he told me in a way that was flattering as hell, which was he didn’t ask if I knew who Eugene O’Neill was, although I did say “Wow” at the mention of the name, so he might have sized up my interest that way, and just went right into the story. Seems that when he was living an emigre’s life in New York, trying to make a go of it in stage work, he scored his greatest career triumph to date: The Theater Guild wanted him to direct a play by Eugene O’Neill. Now, O’Neill had already won the Pulitzer and he’d already had several successes, not to mention his other new play, Strange Interlude, was already generating a lot of pre-opening night buzz, so we’re talking King of 1928 Broadway here. O’Neill agrees to meet Mamoulian in his hotel room (that is to say, O’Neill’s hotel room. It seems like the best stories about O’Neill take place in hotel rooms) to talk over any directorial concerns O’Neill, the playwright, might have, and if he has any advice to give this youngster concerning his play.

“Actually, Mr O’Neill,” says Mamoulian, trying to sound like himself at thirty, you know, the brash but confident whiz-kid, “I know exactly how to fix your play.”

“You will change not a word. Not a word!” says O’Neill. And here The Old Man doesn’t bother to actually imitate O’Neill, although in time I heard him do some good impressions of other people, mostly actors.

“Look here, Mr O’Neill,” says young Mamoulian, opening the bound script of Marco Millions that he brought with him. “I can show you exactly where the speeches slow the play down, and where we can achieve the same ends using action. Here—” And here The Old Man imitates taking a blue pencil and boldly slashing a diagonal line across a rejected page like editors do— “—and here—” He goes on to recreate his turning the pages of the script one at a time— “and here—here—here—” with a slash! slash! slash! And all the time I’m thinking with a kind of growing horror: You CUT Eugene O’Neill!!!?

“But in the end,” Mamoulian assures me, “he saw that I was right, and we got along splendidly.”

But that’s not the end of the story. About a year after Mamoulian and I go our separate ways, I get a chance to attend opening night of Marco Millions at Berkeley Stage Company up in the Bay Area, as the plus-one of some guy I was seeing. This was around the time BSC was on its “classics” kick, making it clear in news and ads and publicity sheets that this wasn’t just any old O’Neill revival, this was an extra-special homage to the master playwright of our great theatrical heritage. Scenes cut from the 1928 production had been restored in order that this fruit of O’Neill’s genius be presented intact and full; Mamoulian’s name was hardly mentioned.

Well, I watch this big lumbering thing, right through the parts that dragged on and on with their interminable speeches about the redistribution of wealth and so on, and I’m thinking, this must be where he cut, here— Then here— And here  And almost like he’s whispering in my ear “See? See?” I realize that The Old Man was right to make the cuts, and that Marco Millions probably could have been a fine piece of theater if they’d stuck to the original opening night version.

But I swear, it was not on my mind to argue this during lobby talk after the curtain. The big thing on my mind was that I had the perfect story to share at this particular time, in this particular space, and yeah, I wanted to share it. I was with the guy who brought me, a cokehead freelance lighting designer who was always hitting up people for jobs. Together we went up to the artistic directors, a married couple, my date immediately starting in with the whole buttering up thing, you know, You look fabulous what have you been doing to yourself, etc etc etc.

I break in with something like, “You know, I have a great story about this play I got straight from (and here I made sure to stress the second syllable like he preferred) Rouben Mamoulian and how he worked with—”

And here the guy, my date, takes me aside and mutters as urgently but tenderly as is possible for him, “Sweetheart, would you please shut up while I’m talking business.”

Reader, I did.

So everyone, this is the first time—the very first time—in forty-one years I’m telling this story.

And you, Tom Stocker. Just for that, I regret having given you the most explosive orgasm of your life, the one that made you howl like a wolf.

Part 1 “The Rodgers Piano” here.
Part 2 “Agnes De Mille” here.

~ again, for Stephen Tobolowsky

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