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, 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 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.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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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.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “London” Symphony (No 2) Conducted by John Barbirolli at The Hallé, 1958; and by My Beloved John Wilson in Nottingham, January 2014

At the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, 23 January 2014 with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

John Wilson BBCSO London SymphonyAbove my beloved John conducting this emotion wringer of a symphony: Barbirolli’s landmark 1958 recording with his own Manchester-based orchestra, The Hallé.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Waterland from the Graham Swift Novel Starring Jeremy Irons, Sinead Cusack, Ethan Hawke, Grant Warnock, Lena Headey; Music by Carter Burwell; Directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1992

This is Stephen’s best movie, hands down. Whenever I think of Stephen and thinking of him raises my blood pressure remembering all the shenanigans he pulled on me, I also think of Waterland and (almost) all is forgiven between us, as far as I’m concerned.

Waterland.jpgThat’s Lena Headey in her first screen role. Above Lena, Grant Warnock and Jeremy Irons: Carter Burwell’s gorgeous, haunting music from Waterland.

I’m not a huge fan of Graham Swift’s books, but I read his Waterland and Last Orders, and much prefer Last Orders as a novel but Waterland as a film, no matter how many trivial changes the screenwriter made. In Swift’s memoir there’s the amusing revelation that Steve got this assignment because although he was last on the list he was the only one available…yeah, that’s the Gyllenhaal Luck. Fortunately—really fortunately—Steve had with him a very good Director of Photography, Robert Elswit, and score composer Carter Burwell, whose music you can hear above.

I mentioned in another posting about his film work that “there’s a creepy, dreamy, nasty edge in almost all the sex scenes in Steve’s movies…” which certainly figures here. Not in the actual sex scenes between the teenage lovers, which are all lyrically rendered, but in that damn ABORTION SCENE in the woods, which never fails to get gasps from us females in the audience. Check it out. There’s a weird fairy-tale quality to this scene which is beautiful, but sooo the wrong tone.

Free pdf of my memoir re the Gyllenhaals A POET FROM HOLLYWOOD here.
Free epub of my 2014 Hollywood-based comedy mystery COLD OPEN here.

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Two TV Theme Songs by Jack Keller and Howard Greenfield with the Brill Building Sound: “Gidget” (1965) and “Bewitched” (1964)

Just a doddle for the weekend. Below are two show theme songs I remember note for note, word for word from the golden days of unpretentious woman-power television:

Bewitched, bewitched, you’ve got me in your spell
Bewitched, bewitched, you know your craft so well…

If you’re in doubt about angels being real
I can arrange to change any doubts you feel
Wait’ll you see my Gidget,
You’ll want her for your valentine…

GidgetAmerica’s Sweetheart, two-time Oscar-winner Sally Field plays 15-year-old surfing-crazy, boy-crazy Francie “Gidget (girl+midget)” Lawrence in her first sitcom, which was based on the enormously successful eponymous 1957 novel by Oscar-nominated screenwriter/novelist Frederick Kohner, who in turn based the heroine on his own surfing daughter. Above Gidget, her theme song.

If you hear the Brill Building sound in Jack Keller’s easy, swingy tunes you’d be right—Keller worked in the Brill in NY the 50s, along with Neil Sedaka and Carole King, two of the many, many songwriters from that legendary song factory. And much thanks to Howard Greenfield for the nifty phrasing in “Gidget”.


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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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.


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My First Music: John Wilson Conducts the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in 2015, the BBCSSO in 2018, and the Sinfonia of London in Ottorino Respighi’s “The Pines of Rome” (Chandos, 2020)

My beloved John conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (who The Guardian described as “a fearless young army on the move”) in “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi in Leeds in 2015; and in Glasgow, where he’s been the Associate Guest Conductor for several years, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Now he’s rounding out his association with this perennial orchestra piece with a wonderfully crisp and sparkling new recording from Chandos with the new Sinfonia of London.

I classify this under My First Music because I first heard this symphonic poem in a broadcast of a Young People’s Concert. Leonard Bernstein conducted, the NY Philharmonic played. Listen for the feet of Roman soldiers along the Appian Road, my affectionately-remembered rabbi of music suggested. I think I was 11.

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NOTES for “Respighi: Rome” on Chandos available here. John rehearsing the NYOGB in The Appian Road, summer 2015. Above John: The Villa Borghese.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Fanfares (Chandos, 2018), an Album by Onyx Brass, Conducted by John Wilson

A recent article mentioning John in 4barsrest, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists, reminded me of the fact that I never did get around to listening to and writing about my beloved conductor’s recording with the Onyx Brass, which I bought 2 years ago this month. I am listening now.

John Wilson & Onyx Brass 2Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where the Onyx Brass rehearsed and recorded this in 2017. Above John: Malcolm Arnold’s “Railway” Fanfare, my personal favorite. NOTES for Fanfares (Chandos, 2018) can be found here. There is no other instrument in a symphony orchestra that calls attention to the manmade-ness of its actual sound than the horn. Strings can mimic the human voice; woodwinds the sound of wind in the trees; percussion can conjure up a hail storm… But you tell me, can the sound of human lips vibrating a piece of metal sound like anything but what it is?

Well, two years makes a difference. I fell in love with John two years ago 2018, that spring. That summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble, and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.

So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle/Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, e.g. this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*

It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.

Which brings us back to this collection of Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.

The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era.  If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.

John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here (see above); as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and yes, Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John Wilson‘s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.

Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last two years.

*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My Beloved Conductor John Wilson’s First Orchestral Gig Since February 2020: Tallis, Saint-Saens with the Philharmonia Online, July 2020

Great to see my bonny back in the saddle, beard and all. This is the first concert of a series of 3 by the Philharmonia which was underwritten by a private family trust and partnered with Classic-FM, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw them a few extra dollars around this time.

John Wilson Philharmonia BatterseaAbove the Great Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre, July 2020: The complete audio recording of this concert.

John’s last appearance before an orchestra was at the Royal Festival Hall back on 27 February,  when he conducted Samuel Barber’s Essay No 1, along with Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Elgar’s Sketches for Symphony No 3.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Peter Sellers in The World of Henry Orient with Some Elmer Bernstein Thrown In, Just for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor for His Winding Down After Concertizing

Val: I love him anyway. I adore him! You can tell the whole world if you want to that I, Valerie Campbell Boyd, love and adore the great and beautiful and wonderful Henry Orient, world without end, amen. (to Marian Gilbert, shows album cover with Orient’s face) Isn’t he absolutely divine?

Marian: He really is cute…but I thought you said he needed practice.

Val: Oh Gilbert, have you no soul? Of course he needs practice. Especially on the scales. (moans) But this is LOVE, Gil! (sinks back on bed holding album) Oh, my dreamy dream of dreams! My beautiful, adorable, oriental Henry! How can I prove to you that I’m yours?

Val's in Love.jpgNovelist/screenwriter Nora Johnson had an intense teenage crush on Oscar Levant, hence the cute name for Valerie’s true love. The World of Henry Orient (United Artists, 1964) is available on YT in its entirety. The enormously inventive and amusing Elmer Bernstein score, which is best appreciated entirely by watching the movie, is represented here by the sweet Main Title above.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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A Quick Shout-Out to Bob Rafaelson, Carole Eastman, The Monkees, Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor, and Five Easy Pieces (Columbia, 1970)

When you dine at a fancy dinner party, a common practice is to “cleanse the palate” between courses with a simple satisfying sweet, like lemon sherbet. Well, that’s what the music of Bob Rafaelson’s creation, The Monkees, is to my sessions of listening+studying music at the table of my beloved English conductor John Wilson: lemon sherbet between John’s more complex courses of Tchaikovsky or Ravel. My personal jukebox:

NOTES: 1) Now isn’t this THE quintessential Laurel Canyon Sound? 2) Music and lyrics by Boyce & Hart (“Last Train to Clarksville”); Carole King & Gerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”); Neil Diamond (“A Little Bit Me”, “Love to Love”); Mann & Weil (“Shades of Gray”); Carole Bayer Sager & Neil Sedaka(!) (“When Love Comes Knocking”); Ben Gibbard (“Me and Magdalena”); Mickey Dolenz (“Randy Scouse Git”) and Mike Nesmith (“Circle Sky”). 3) “Circle Sky” is from Head, that trippy 1968 Monkees movie produced by Bob Rafaelson, written and directed by Jack Nicholson(!!!) and available on YT. 4) As you can read from the above titles, I never got over my special crushy (though surprisingly nonsexual) affection for Davy Jones (“A Little Bit Me”, Love to Love”, “When Love Comes Knocking”).

Five Easy PiecesStalled just outside of Bakersfield, California, on a tinny old upright Bobby DuPea breaks into a polished rendition of Frederic Chopin’s Fantasy in F minor. Above Bobby: Arthur Rubenstein plays the complete Fantasy.

Which brings us to the Bob Rafaelson-Carole Eastman classic, Five Easy Pieces, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in September. If you want to talk about The Alienation of The Artist, this film is the perfect jumping-off place. Solid, solid script, one of the best to come out of 70s Hollywood. And then of course Jack Nicholson. A good geeky essay by filmmaker Kent Jones on Five Easy Pieces exists at Criterion.

I know I’m dawdling over that review of Fanfares. Will get to it by the end of the week, lovers of brass ensembles and my bonny John Wilson.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Marquess of the Gardens of Aranjuez, His Finest Work in the 1995 UK Film, Brassed Off

As I once pledged, I will go almost anywhere my beloved conductor John Wilson leads me; and so it was a remark of his that led me to this movie, which in the mid-90s was an estimable hit in the UK, though not so much here in the States. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”

brassed-off.jpegIn this scene where the ensemble plays the famous Adagio of the Concierto, Tara Fitzgerald shows the lads her superior proficiency on the flugelhorn, inspiring their conductor, played by Lancashire-born Peter Postlethwaite, to consider taking the band on a competition tour and win some desperately needed prize money for their out-of-work members. Above: Joaquin Rodrigo’s entire Concierto de Aranjuez (1939), Richard Gallen, guitar, Moscow 2012.

There’ve been a couple of other, better known (in the US) British films, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot, which also address the economic/unemployment crisis in Britain that, back in the 80s, did its part to whittle away at arts education throughout the country, particularly in the north. Like I said, my beloved conductor’s remarks in recent interviews about his early influences started me thinking not only about his musical but general education growing up in Gateshead in the 80s. I’ll take this on in an upcoming post. The contrasts / similarities between his musical influences and school training—as a northern Brit through most of the 80s—and mine—as a midwestern American through the mid 60s-early 70s—I find worth examining, and not just because I’m hopelessly in love with the bloke.

For now, this is what I take away from anecdotal evidence like Brassed Off and John’s childhood memories: The British, in general, seem to be more used to the sound of brass ensembles than Americans. Now, we like to think we know all about brass ensemble music because, being Americans, military marches and Sousa seem to stalk us everywhere we go in this great land of ours. But really, it’s not the same kind of music. I’ll discuss this in my review.

But let me just say this here: I will try to cut John a little more slack when it comes to his choices in orchestration for The Great American Songbook. I mean, if that’s really the way he hears it in his head…

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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