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 in all her Aspects smiles upon 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 compassion, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The compassion I can 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 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 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.

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, Edward Elgar, 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
  • 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 as of 2016, although his count confusingly goes up or down with each interview) 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.

Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila and Cabin Pressure (BBC4 2008 – 2014)

Here’s a little sweet doddle while I struggle over a few more involved postings (not all of them to do with my beloved John Wilson), which I hope to finish by the weekend. Cabin Pressure is one of the funniest, most cleverly-written sitcoms on BBC Radio and it doesn’t hurt that two stage/screen veterans with the most gorgeous voices and perfect comedic delivery are top of the compact cast list. I’m sharing this episode because it starts off with a demanding conductor and a paranoid bassoonist on board the tiny chartered airplane—and as always, of course, Glinka’s overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila.

Cabin Pressure.jpgStephanie Cole, creator John Finnemore, Roger Allam, and Benedict Cumberbatch perform Cabin Pressure for a live BBC studio audience. 

On Conductor John Wilson’s Orchestral Sabbatical and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, Part 3

Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, it makes me happy to be in your audience and I don’t require you at all to be in mine—mostly because, as Mister Grumble just pointed out, my flicks would probably give you a heart attack. And hand to God, I do not want to add to your anxieties in this, your time of transitioning.

It also makes me doubly happy that you’re going to be concentrating more on The Classic Repertoire this season, although it means leaving your faithful John Wilson Orchestra fans for a time. (I’m in your fan club because Claire’s a nice lady and she asked me twice, so I’m there up close noting people’s disappointment that you and your orchestra won’t be touring your native country this year.) Because when you’re not touring with American film music on the program, you’re not on the podium making the kind of quasi-witty comments that would make even me wince, and I used to be Arthur Godfrey’s gag man back in the fifties.

Now VoyagerNow, Voyager (1942): Bette Davis as brave Charlotte Vale and Paul Henreid as her handsome weenie of a lover in this BBC Saturday rainy day movie I’ll bet John saw when he was a kid and couldn’t make head nor tail of—except for the music. That’s Charles Gerhardt conducting the Max Steiner score, including the Warners Bros studio theme, which Steiner also wrote.

By the way John my beloved Tyneside lad, I’m getting a kick out of imagining you form the word “porn”. Pohhhrn.

On that note, I just want to let all of you know that I realize that it’s not hard to find me. Really. I’m in freakin IMDb. I don’t even have to fill you in on what my screen name is because IMDb seems to have switched pretty much every one of my credits back to my legal name anyway, so it would be kind of pointless… All right. It’s Simona Wing. My castmates in my first movie, Dork & Sindy aka Playthings, gave it to me, and I consider it quite a lagniappe. Mister Grumble used it for my character’s name in his first novel (Tales from the Last Resort, Brave New Books, 2002) and no one has been able to get better use out of it since.

I have pleasant memories of that shoot. For one thing, it was shot in Marin County. In Sausalito! In a house overlooking the Bay. Do you see in that pic those houses up in the hills? The white house above the red roof, that’s where we shot.

For another thing, Craft Services was fantastic. You could graze all day and this being a feature film there was lunch served from chafing dishes too.

And it was a friendly, clean shoot. Does anyone here who saw the flick remember what I was wearing before the guy in sunglasses growled into my breasts, stripped me naked and threw me into the hot tub? That white blouse, that long black skirt, those pumps? That was my secretarial outfit, the one I wore a few months earlier when I worked for Rouben Mamoulian. Practically every freakin day, I was that poor (took Sunset bus to foot of Schuyler Road, got off, wearing sneakers climbed hill, at Mamoulian’s door removed sneakers, put on pumps which I carried in my handbag). I remember I had one line which has since been coming back to me regularly, because whenever I run into an occasional fan, he (and it’s always a he) tends to quote it to me:

“Marin County been bery, bery good to me.”

Now, you have to be a real Saturday Night Live geek to recognize that line, and I’m not going to decipher it for you. But I suppose this showed people I could do voices, because I got a lot of work from this film, almost all of it involving fakey foreign-sounding accents. Like Fatima, woman of Borneo, in the hardcore version of Sadie Thompson. I’m not kidding.

Part 1 “Full Dress” here.
Part 2 “Zombie Love Slave” here.
Part 4 to come

My First Music: The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold

There must be something in the English character that enables the better artists among them to depict situations of unassuming, steady bravery with superior deftness, which is probably why their World War II pictures are better than ours. One of them, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (20th Century Fox, 1958), doesn’t technically qualify either as a UK picture—Fox produced it; or as a WWII picture—it’s set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1938; but it does have unarmed peasantry scattering to the hills under Japanese gunfire, which is a theme that ran through my mother’s life starting with Pearl Harbor and ending in March, 1945 when American troops marched through the rubble-strewn streets of Manila, hunky victorious good guys. My mother’s first teenage romance was with a private in the 1st Cavalry Division named Kelly, come to think of it.

Now, when I refer to better artists of English character I don’t mean the film’s producer, director, writer (American, American, American), or stars (Swedish, Austrian). But it’s because of: one, the true-life heroine the story was based on; two, the location shooting; three, the non-lead casting; and four and most importantly, the music, that I think of Sixth Happiness as an English film. The true-life heroine of the story was English-born, not to mention the film has Snowdonia standing in for the daunting terrain around Yangcheng and pretty near the entire Chinese heritage population of Liverpool standing in for Chinese nationals, with supporting roles portrayed by stalwarts of UK stage and screen. This is the first thing I ever saw Burt Kwouk in.

But to the music. This is not Malcolm Arnold’s finest score—Bridge On the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957) really is a superior composition—but it rates higher with me becauuuse, you guessed it, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a gorgeous Love Theme, which you can hear below as the Royal Academy of Music performed the suite back in 2014. You’ll also hear the bright, high fanfare brass that Arnold used in a few other of his movies, River Kwai and the one below, for examples. Also, I’m starting to develop a theory to satisfy myself that certain intervals, played with conviction, are the real sinews of English music: they make for that sound of “rightness”, which you can take one way or another, depending on the mood—or your mood, for that matter. Sixth Happiness has plenty of those.

Inn of the 6th Happiness.jpg

Besides the satisfying fanfare brass, Sixth Happiness shares with the satirical The Belles of St Trinian’s (British Lion, 1954) a bit in the score where there’s a song meant to be sung by children—in Sixth Happiness it’s “This Old Man”; in St Trinian’s it’s the school’s hilarious “Battle Cry”. I’m not posting the lyrics here, so click on the link in red to listen to those cheerfully bloodthirsty oaths. But can you imagine what a liberating tonic this ferocious roar from the depths of The Untamed Female Soul was to a little girl in the Catholic part of Minneapolis, watching this on Saturday matinee TV (a tonic, incidentally, I would not imbibe again till I heard Bernadine Dorhn mouth off a few years later)—?

Here’s the BBCCO doing the St Trinian’s suite at the Proms (Timothy West, narrator) bringing back almost all the familiar, funny-music leitmotifs to smile at, like George Cole’s character’s “Flash Harry”, a loping, rattling kind of tune (although lamentably there’s no sign of Joyce Grenfell’s scurrying “Ruby Gates”) before returning to that ghoulish school pageant march, lyrics I believe provided by Arnold himself.

In contrast, “This Old Man” is meant to be a “found” song, purportedly a children’s counting song, heard on the playground since the 19th century, and in a way that’s right, as the first time I heard “This Old Man” was on the playground—but only because it had become a hit on US radio first in 1959. It’s still impossible for me not to hear “This Old Man” and not think of the climactic scene in Sixth Happiness: the hundred children crossing the Yellow River into safe territory, ragged and exhausted but alive, marching into the unoccupied city to cheering crowds, loudly singing this song. Invariably it brings tears to my eyes, immigrant daughter that I am, and I remember the first time I watched—and heard—this film on TV with my mother, my mind nearly forming the question I never asked her, not then, not ever: “What happened to you in the war, mom?” Because the music was so ravishing, the love story was so satisfying, and my mother just wanted to enjoy an Ingrid Bergman film.

CC Non-Deriv

The Tippett Quartet Play Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho at Kings Place, London, 2011

Most people* seem to discount the idea that Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho is actually a near-perfect work for strings (given that it was written exclusively for strings anyway) and that, given the right setting, is a very listenable chamber piece that doesn’t need to reference the film. Here’s the Tippett Quartet performing this arrangement by Richard Birchall at Kings Place, 2011.

Tippett Quartet PsychoJohn Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic: the London-based Tippett Quartet.

* Like Mister Grumble. This is the secondmost heated debate** between us: whether or not movie music (for narrative films not musicals) can be considered truly concert-worthy.

** (The most heated debate between us is whether Oswald did it or not. This one gets us both really het up, as one of us has a slight connection with the actual case.)

PS—Because I just noticed that the leader of the Tippitt Quartet (circa 2011), John Mills, is also the leader of the John Wilson Orchestra to date, I’m giving this posting a john-wilson tag.

From The Patrick and Maureen Maybe Music Experience, Written and Performed by Patrick Barlow, with Imelda Staunton

On BBC radio streaming until the middle of October, 2019. From 1999, so I guess that makes this show 20 years old.

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Patrick: This is Irina, the performance artist from Praha.
Maureen: Where?
Irina: Praaa-ha.
Maureen: Yes, I think we know where she comes from. Does she normally wear that?
Irina: I wear very little. There is a saying in my country, “Music is like the body. The more it is exposed, the more it can arouse.” Another expression we have in Czech, “Music is like sex—if we do not have it, WE DIE!!!”
Maureen: (alarmed) Sex. She said sex!
Irina: My music is like my sex. It come from the dark inside of my wooomb of my sex! Yearning to receive the seed of the dark black innards of my inward being… Dark, black, and hot, they copulate in the tone of the music of the fire that meets and heats, and in the heat is born the sacred coming of the sex of my body, is sex and my body is music, on and in, and in and on, my body is the sex of my heat, and my music, my heat, my body is on…
Maureen: Heat?
Irina: Of course. Always. Or as we say in my country, “[something-something-something-sex in Czech]”… Now I tune and prepare. (plays violin, orgasming loudly to music)
Maureen: Well, that was quite unusual.
Irina: (panting) Thank you.
Patrick: Um, did you actually achieve…?
Irina: (more panting) Orgasm? Of course.
Maureen: So, any other questions you’d like to ask, Patrick…? Any tips? Sorry, the producer’s flashing me. (in headset) Yup! Sorry? Yes yes, I know, well, he’s had her on, it wasn’t my idea…
Patrick: I did not get her on! I was under the impression we agreed we needed an example of the solo fiddle…
Maureen: Yes yes, you would like a fiddle wouldn’t you? (in headset) Yes, yes, all right. (hangs up headset) I’m afraid this is the BBC and we can’t have people having orgasms on it. Can we, Patrick?
Patrick: (deflated) No, no, I’m afraid not.
Maureen: (to Irina) So please leave. Now our next guest…

The battling couple then goes on to humiliate Juliet Stevenson.

My First Music: “Dahil Sa Iyo” and My Sentimental Devotion to Bonny John Wilson, Conductor

If you could, my bonny John Wilson, imagine me wearing a Maria Clara (like great-grandmother Aberin below) and you wearing a barong, I’d be singing you this song:

Verse: Sa buhay ko’y labis
Ang hirap at pasakit, ng pusong umiibig
Mandi’y wala ng langit
At ng lumigaya, hinango mo sa dusa
Tanging ikaw sinta, ang aking pag-asa.

Refrain: Dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay
Dahil sa iyo, hanggang mamatay
Dapat mong tantuin, wala ng ibang giliw
Puso ko’y tanungin, ikaw at ikaw rin

Dahil sa iyo, ako’y lumigaya
Pagmamahal, ay alayan ka
Kung tunay man ako, ay alipinin mo
Ang lahat sa buhay ko, dahil sa iyo

Dahil Sa Iyo”
Mike Velarde Jr music (1938), Tom Spinoza, lyrics
Cora and Santos Beloy, vocalists
Tri-World Records (1964)

Great-Grandmother Aberin 1.jpgMy mother’s lola, my great-grandmother, the spitting image of my mother the way Georgiana Drew is the spitting image of Drew Barrymore. I have no documentation for my assertion—my family’s house and possessions were completely destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. But whenever we came across this picture in the media—in an article in Time, for example—my mom would always point her out and tell me the story of how my great-grandfather came over from Ireland and, upon discovering he was meeting fellow Catholics in a sea of Asians, stayed, changed his name from O’Brien to Aberin, and married the local beauty. How the Dutch photographer found her is anybody’s guess.

Walton’s Symphony no.1 and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Overture to Colas Breugnon, Played by the BBC Philharmonic and Conducted by John Wilson

My bonny John Wilson conducted this overture, along with William Walton’s Symphony no.1, on 21 September 2019 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (broadcast on the 24th followed by 30 days of streaming, till 23 October). Only thing I know about Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 1987), that old Communist, is his “Comedians” Suite—which John may very well end up doing sometime, if he hasn’t already—and the dauntingly massive bildungsroman Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, who also wrote the original novel the opera Colas Breugnon is based on. (Never finished Jean-Christophe, may yet. Let you know.) This piece is typical of the kind of repertoire John is getting known for: bright, busy, theatrical, uncomplex, and quite entertaining.

Kabalevsky.jpgOverture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevsky, played by the BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky, conductor (Chandos, 2003).

It was also pleasing to hear the BBCCO playing under John’s baton a creditable rendition of Walton’s first and most frequently programmed (as a matter of fact, Petrenko conducted this in London back in March) and recorded symphony. This is a good gig for John, the first concert of the season at Bridgewater Hall. Quite an honor, in fact.

Here’s Bryden Thomson conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in William Walton’s Symphony no.1 in B-flat minor.