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, 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
  • 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 – Pinch-hit conducted Dvorak’s Eighth Symphony in Dublin with the RTE Ocober 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…
  • 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.

“We Can’t Let Those Hands Go Down a Pit”: Jean Heywood (1921 – 2019) in When the Boat Comes In, Episode 7, BBC, 1976

Of course it’s not Bella Seaton (Jean Heywood) speaking that line, it’s her daughter, schoolteacher Jessie, pleading the case of an artistic young pupil doomed to work down the coal pit in Gallowshields, a post-WWI fictional town—a composite, I believe, of all the little towns along the River Tyne in the north near Newcastle (you know, that place in the phrase “Selling coals to Newcastle is like selling ice to Eskimos”) including the town where my beloved John Wilson was born, Gateshead*.  Bella is the strong-willed matriarch, as we Yanks would say, of the Seaton family, so she gets a lot of scenes, which is great because I pick up the Geordie accent from Northumberland-born Heywood more easily than from anyone else in the show.

As I might have mentioned a few postings ago I did three of my flicks speaking in a foreign accent: one in French, one in Cuban, and one in Malaysian, which I actually did in Filipino but no one could tell the difference. I like to practice the Geordie accent during off moments, you know, because it reminds me of John, and so it gives me pleasure.

Jean Heywood When the Boat Comes In.jpgAmerican audiences will probably better remember Jean Heywood, who died in September at the age of 98, as the grandmother in another classic story about artistic aspirations in the north, Billy Elliot. There’s neighborhood lad Alex Glasgow singing the show’s theme song “When the Boat Comes In” with the backing of the (now Royal) Northern Sinfonia.

*Low Fell, to be precise.

John Wilson Conducts the BBC Philharmonic in Eric Coates’s “The Enchanted Garden” 13 November 2019, MediaCityUK, Salford

Coates’s longest single composition and scored for a much larger orchestra than was usual for him. He recast the Seven Dwarfs ballet music, his wife coming up with a new scenario as well. In effect, it is a substantially different piece and is truly “enchanting”. Some even view it as his masterpiece. Whether or not that is the case, John Wilson and the BBC Concert Orchestra turn in a superb performance on another excellent collection of the composer’s less well-known works. ~ Liner notes on Chandos CD, 1988

John was 25 when he conducted this.

John on BBC

“The Enchanted Garden” (1938)
Eric Coates, composer
BBC Concert Orchestra
John Wilson, conductor
10 Orchestral Pieces, album
Chandos, 1998

Closing Thought on “The Trolley Song” from A Celebration of Classic MGM Film Musicals with Conductor John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms 2009

Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, I don’t care whether some guy at Warners made you up because he had to optimize the assets in his department, you’re real enough to me. And it doesn’t matter a damn bit how you got the gig. What matters is you did the work.

The Trolley Song
from Meet Me In St Louis (MGM, 1944)
orchestrated by Conrad Salinger
reconstructed by John Wilson
played by The John Wilson Orchestra
conducted by John Wilson
from the album That’s Entertainment!
A Celebration of MGM Musicals
Kim Criswell, vocalist
Warner Classics, 2012

John Wilson Orchestra, Criswell, RLPO 2012 .jpg
Kim Criswell and John Wilson rehearsing with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. [Photo by Eric the Fish King, 2012.]

Lovelace the Film, Or How to Give Penilingism a Bad Name and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, Part 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 called to him. He smiled at us a dazzling smile, excused himself and trotted off.

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…

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

Here’s a sweet little 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.