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 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

john-wilson-rosza-2-copy.jpeg

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; 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 Ever Beloved John Wilson and the LSO at St Luke’s in Islington, 11 March 2021: The New, New Program

Back last February 2020, the London Symphony Orchestra booked John for a 21 January 2021 concert of Barber, Weill and Russell Bennett. Then that changed.

It looked like the LSO came up with a completely different program—no soloist, smaller group, shorter works: George Gershwin’s “Lullaby”; Henri Dutilleux’s “Le loup”; and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partita for Orchestra (here played by the BBCCO, with my beloved John conducting the work of his special mentor).

Then that changed. On the 10th of January this year the LSO completely canceled John’s concert.

Then on 8 April the LSO released on Marquee.tv a freebie fundraiser video concert with a couple of selections from the two earlier planned programs, plus Maurice Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales”, as well as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partita for Orchestra.

The LSO Bennett-Gershwin-Ravel concert is available to watch in full FREE for a week starting 8 April 2021.

Hard sell from the LSO website: “John Wilson takes his personal favourites by Gershwin, Ravel and Richard Rodney Bennett, and presents them in glorious sonic Technicolor. Everyone knows that no-one—but no-one—conducts Gershwin with more verve and style than John Wilson. But today he gets even more personal, with joyous, multicoloured showpieces by two composers close to his heart: Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s brilliant Partita. For some, Rodney Bennett was the composer who did Four Weddings and a Funeral; for others, he was one of the finest jazz pianists of our time. But for Wilson, he was a friend, an inspiration, and ‘an absolute master’. This should be a treat.”



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By Grabthar’s Hammer: The Soundtrack Suites from Star Trek IV (Paramount, 1986) by Leonard Rosenman; and Galaxy Quest (Dreamworks, 1999) by Yet Another Newman, David

To my mind, these are the two movie scores which best convey the whole Star Trek ethos: the jaunty energy of military adventure + the thrilling, life-changing mix of wonder and belief… A very 1960s spirit and I doubt we’ll ever be able to return to it, but anyway.

Julie Andrews, Jon Cypher in Cinderella 1957Above Missi Pyle, Tony Shalhoub, Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Ted Rees, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, and Darryl Mitchell: Galaxy Quest Soundtrack Suite played by the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Soundtrack Suite
from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
Leonard Roseman, composer


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Conductor John Wilson Among the Women of Glyndebourne’s Cendrillon by Jules Massenet, 2019

At the intermission talk with Cendrillon‘s director Fiona Dunn, my beloved John Wilson, mezzo Kate Lindsey, and soprano Danielle de Niese, the topic of debate was, What should Prince Charming look like in the 21st century?


AVAILABLE NOW: The Glyndebourne production of CENDRILLON streamcast at Marquee.tv


John Wilson Glyndebourne 1Above John making namaste at the premiere of Cendrillon at Glyndebourne, 2019: “Vous êtes mon prince charmant” from Act III of Massenet’s comic opera.


Says John to the lovelies (here pictured): “I think having Prince Charming as Massenet stipulated, it fits beautifully within the whole kind of sonic picture of the whole thing. It’s not a piece that you could say fits on one musical plane, it’s got lots of colors. It’s one of the most colorful pieces he ever wrote… When I said I was doing this piece to people, they would say, Oh yeah, that’s a nice light sort of sweet little piece. It’s not a sweet little piece, it’s a big piece, there’s always another layer to get to and there’s always more detail to explore, always more depth every time. It’s not lightweight…”


Plus My Review of Cendrillon at Glyndebourne; Or, I’m Only Here for the Shoes

Tell me of two operas more different in sexual tone than The Turn of the Screw (1954) and Massenet’s Cendrillon (1898) that my beloved John Wilson did within six months of each other, and I’ll faint. Not that story tone would mean anything to him, as you can read above…

Which is just as it should be. My beloved John wasn’t meant for [doing laundry now; more later]


EXTRA! The most John Wilsonish piece in Cendrillon.

“Marche des princesses”
from Cendrillon, Act IV
Jules Massenet, composer
Academy of St Martin in the Fields
Neville Marriner, conductor
Capriccio, 1997



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Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw with Peter Pears and the EOG, 1954; and at Wilton’s Music Hall, 2020, Filmed by Opera GlassWorks and Conducted by My Beloved John Wilson

AVAILABLE 30 JAN 21: Opera Glassworks’s filming of their fully-staged TURN OF THE SCREW streamcast at Marquee.tv


EXTRA! John speaks in this half-hour BBC4 radio show about the re-staging of Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall, 2020


A new production of The Turn of the Screw from Opera Glassworks, conducted by John Wilson at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall, was three days from opening in March 2020 when the first lockdown hit.

Director Selina Cadell and producer Eliza Thompson managed to rebook the cast of six singers and 13 musicians (from John’s own orchestra, the Sinfonia of London) for a run in October. But as weeks of lockdown turned into months, it looked like the project would be scuppered.

At which point, they rethought it for film.

The stage director and producer took the opportunity to experiment. “We weren’t interested in live capture,” says Thompson. “But we didn’t want the fact that it was intended to be a stage production to be lost.”

This influenced not just their approach with singers and a working method with camera director Dominic Best across the 6-day shoot, but also with the individual players forming John Wilson’s orchestra.

With the perfectly captured, decayed grandeur of its main, high-vaulted space dating back to 1859, the thrillingly atmospheric, Victorian-era Wilton’s Music Hall translates perfectly into the chilly, remote country house and garden in which the ghostly actions occur. Designer Tom Piper seized the opportunity to make the entire building a film set.

“Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t have all the musicians there together,” says Thompson. “So with the auditorium completely filled, becoming a Suffolk reed bed, we’ve planted the musicians throughout the film. As the story progresses, it becomes more anarchic.”

Cadell and Thompson have capitalised on the opera’s unique construction, individual scenes interspersed with an instrumental theme and 15 variations, to enhance the work’s filmic, non-linear nature.

The performance, still in the edit prior to being distributed via arts channel Marquee TV, is an equally impressive advance born out of Covid necessity. The vocals were filmed live, with the singers using microphones but without the orchestra. Instead, using monitors, John Wilson conducted them against live keyboards. Once the singers’ tracks were laid down, the orchestra was recorded to fit the singers’ interpretations, which is how it should be. ~David Benedict, from The Stage, 20 Nov 2020

*Catch a glimpse of the man I love on the monitor at 00:33 or here at rehearsal.


The Turn of the Screw at Wilton's, 2020When I was back in grad school, I did a paper on the novella this opera is based on, The Turn of the Screw, my take being that the whole thrust of the story had to do with, at its core, author Henry James’s weird revulsion to/fear of sexualityany sexuality—gay, straight, bi, kinky, whatever… Which in my ignorant prejudice I took to be typical of all English men anytime, anywhere—until I remembered that James was born not just American but, like my son, a native New Yorker (used to take The Kid to the playground in Washington Square near James’s old house) and he turned out fine. So it was fascinating to hear and watch OperaGlass Works‘s no-emotional-holds-barred production with my brilliant, bonny conductor John Wilson at the musical helm. Above Opera GlassWorks’s filmed production at Wilton’s Music Hall (2020): Britten’s 1954 The Turn of the Screw, with a superior libretto by poet Myfanwy Piper. Singers: Jennifer Vyvyan, Peter Pears, Arda Mandikian, Joan Cross, Olive Dyer, and as the young and beautiful boy Miles, David Hemmings! The English Opera Group was conducted by the composer.



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Some Jukebox Tunes Heard at Downtown Beirut, Vazac Hall, the Blue & Gold, and the Holiday Lounge, East Village 1980s

Another weekend doddle while I continue to be late uploading John Wilson: An English Conductor. (Blame it on my annual respiratory episode. Feeling better now.)


Here’s a blast from the past. When The Kid was still in my belly, Mr Grumble and I managed to get the sublet on a 3-room apartment in the East Village, which we upgraded a few months later to a 4-room with renewable 2-year lease for $250 a month. Yes. Only two hundred and fifty smackers a month. Which means we could make it on theatrical gigs and more-than-occasional temp work, even after paying $60 a week to Maxine Wilkes, God bless her memory, for taking him every weekday, 7:30am – 6:00pm, to play/be fed/hang out with her other charges and the rest of her large brood in their enormous 8-room $110(!) a month apartment in the Campos Plaza project 3 blocks away. That project, I recall, had the cleanest, best-kept playground in the neighborhood (not stinky like the one in Tompkins Square Park, for example) and little one learned to walk, then run, in that yard. Was grateful to Our Lady every day to be able to bring the Bograt over to such a nice place—warm, messy, safe, and good-hearted.

Anyway, on the weekends we had him all to ourselves, and would take The Kid—Boggy, his name was then—around with us bar-hopping. Trendy Holiday Lounge on St Mark’s and Downtown Beirut on 2nd… Vazac Hall on Avenue B, which made an appearance on Edward Woodward’s TV show The Equalizer… And that other Polish bar over on 7th, the Blue & Gold. All with the greatest jukeboxes… [more later]


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Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella Starring Julie Andrews, CBS-TV 1957

We all need a visit from the Empress of Delight every so often. So—here she is in all her youthful splendor, about to be kissed by drop-dead handsome Jon Cypher.
Julie Andrews, Jon Cypher in Cinderella 1957Sorry about the speck, seems they never removed it from the original tape. Above Dame Julie and her Prince Charming: The entire audio of R+H’s 1957 original TV musical, Cinderella.
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Vaughan Williams’s Sea Symphony (1910): Sakari Oramo Conducts the BBCSO+Chorus+Voices, BBC Proms 2013; Plus Tyne Dogger Northeast 3 and My Beloved John Wilson on This Valentine’s Day, 2021

I had a dream about you a few days ago, John. It was very short. You were maybe 17, 18… You were standing on Tyne Bridge looking down at the river… It was a cool glassy day and the river was cool and glassy… And you were standing there, thinking and pondering that this was the finest sight there ever was… Then you turned your gaze eastward, toward the North Sea… But all you could see was a shimmery horizon, and maybe it was the sea, but it was calm as well and it made you think about how infinite and endless it was (you were only 17, after all)… And then after a few more seconds of pondering you turned to look at me and you said, ‘And that’s when I decided to love Vaughan Williams.’


A Sea Symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams at the 2013 BBC Proms is available on YT here.


Happy Valentine’s Day, my foamy lad.

Above the maestro and the sea, Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Youth Choir, and soloists Sally Matthews and Roderick Williams in Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no 1.

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Lovelace the Film, Or How to Give Penilingism a Bad Name and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, 4

I only caught this flick on Prime because Peter was in it, and Peter’s the only Gyllenhaal I think I’d actually enjoy having a beer with even now. The last time we met in New York he had just done Jarhead. Maggie was six months pregnant and being fussed over by her mother, Stephen was in the men’s room on his Blackberry talking to his analyst, and Jake was skulking outside the restaurant—we were at Balthazar—wearing a hoodie and hiding in the shadows. It was that kind of family.

Peter Sarsgaard in LovelaceYes, teenage Cantara made out in early 70s Minneapolis with males who looked and dressed exactly like this. Peter Sarsgaard in Lovelace (2013).


One of the first things Peter did, after we were introduced and he gave first Mister Grumble then me a firm friendly handshake, was try to engage us in a conversation about Melungeons. “You know,” he told us mock-confidentially, “Elvis was a Melungeon.” I evinced surprise and interest—I’d never heard the term before, ever—and Peter obviously was about to launch into a carefully-considered patter about Melungeons, when Maggie came over to fetch him. He smiled at us a dazzling smile, excused himself and trotted off with her.

So for now, enough of Peter and on to the movie he was in: Lovelace, a 2013 indie based on the book Ordeal by Linda Boreman aka Linda Lovelace, which is chiefly about her experience making the influential porn classic Deep Throat (1972). As a movie it doesn’t play too badly; some hack wrote the script, but the same politically savvy gay filmmakers who produced/directed The Life and Times of Harvey Milk, Howl, The Celluloid Closet, etc evidently had a lot of artistic control over this project. So there’s quite a lot of fooling around with the narrative structure and other arty bullshit like that, but it’s not enough to hide the fact that there’s really no core idea or message. Not to mention there’s not a lot of entertainment value, either… Nope, in this package there’s absolutely nothing clever, insightful, sensitive, or aesthetically satisfying—all screen values, incidentally, which would NOT be out of place in a porn movie.

Peter was good, but Peter’s always good at playing soft-spoken villains. What really interested me was Hank Azaria’s portrayal of one of my directors, Gerard Damiano. A small role but well-executed. Mr Damiano himself was soft spoken, I remember, and very patient. His was the last word on the set. Everyone respected him. He also paid me a compliment I immediately put into my mental jewelry box, and there it’s stayed ever since…

Part 1 “Full Dress” here.
Part 2 “Zombie Love Slave” here.
Part 3 “Hot Tub” here.
Part 5 to come…


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English Actor James Mason, Cat-Loving Friend of My Old Boss, Classic Hollywood Director and Fellow Cat Lover Rouben Mamoulian, on Burns and Allen 3 September 1948

Another doddle for the weekend. Mason’s book, The Cats In Our Lives, which he wrote and illustrated, was open on display on my boss Mamoulian‘s library lectern the day I started to work for him.

Above James Mason and his house Siamese: James and wife Pamela Mason guest star on a hilarious cat-heavy episode of George Burns and Gracie Allen’s classic radio show, 1948.

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Directed by My Old Boss, Rouben Mamoulian: Love Me Tonight (Paramount, 1932) Just for My Beloved Conductor John Wilson

That snooty critic fart Andrew Sarris once mock-praised my old boss Rouben Mamoulian for his early cinema innovations that never quite caught on. Hah! When’s the last time you were so proud of your old boss’s work you wanted to make sure the world never forgot it? So—here’s the most audacious musical film sequence ever directed, which magically links up the movie’s two singing stars Maurice Chevalier and Jeannette MacDonald:

“Isn’t It Romantic?”
from Love Me Tonight
Rouben Mamoulian, director
Nat Finston, music director-arranger
Songs by Rodgers & Hart

Isn't It Romantic.jpgAbove the music master and Ruritanian soldiers: Ella Fitzgerald sings this Richard Rodgers+Lorenz Hart perennial, which was scaled down from its operetta length for inclusion in The Great American Songbook.

And if you’re still in doubt about Mamoulian’s genius, check out this opening scene which I uploaded especially for my bonny John Wilson for the beat:

“City Wakes”
from Love Me Tonight
Rouben Mamoulian, director
Nat Finston, music director-arranger

If I had seen Love Me Tonight before I went to work for The Old Man I would’ve been more patient with him. But I was only 23.


The entire film Love Me Tonight is available on my YT channel here.



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