Cantara, 1980

The producer of my last movie took this on his patio near the jacuzzi. Sorry, but he kept the nude shots.

Cantara, 1980.jpg

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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 2013

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; his jawline is going a wee bit soft and pasta goes right to his face; 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 sympathy, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The sympathy I can understand: I’m at the end of middle age, he’s at the beginning… As far as gratitude, read my post below 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 when I’m in love with a musician I pay acute attention to the music. Truth to tell though, 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 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; and 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”, “charismatic” or, God help us, “legendary” (at 46!?). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

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

Knowledge of/affinity for/talent with:

  • English Light Music – Affinity natural; knowledge vast; repopularized Angela Morley, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar, Edward German, Eric Coates, Robert Farnum, Hubert Parry, etc etc etc; recorded over a dozen albums of English light music with Naxos, etc
  • English Light Music, Gilbert & Sullivan Division – Creditably conducted Yeoman of the Guard in 2009 and Ruddigore in 2010 (my favorite G&S, as “Basingstoke” was the safeword my boyfriend and I used during bondage games); slated to conduct Trial by Jury spring 2019
  • Classical Repertoire – Special affinity for Rachmaninoff, Respighi, Copland (besides “Fanfare” who cares?) etc. Creditably conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral with the RTE in Dublin. Will follow my beloved in years to come to see if/how he does with Schoenberg (who was the most discussed composer when I was in music school), Szymanowski, Scriabin, Shostakovich, etc etc etc
  • 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; slated to conduct Massenet’s La 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+ 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/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 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 going to be blogging about this.

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…

An Evening of Eric Coates, Played by the BBC Philharmonic and Conducted by John Wilson, Salford, 8 January 2019

After he finishes his JWO “At the Movies” gig touring the isle with his eponymous orchestra, which consists of cracking waaay off-the-beam jokes between numbers about Now, Voyager (Glasgow’s The Herald deems his whippersnapper remarks “camp wit”!) and playing Fred Astaire’s ballet number from The Bandwagon in order to pay homage to Gene Kelly(!), my bonny gets back to business in Salford performing and recording a program of Eric Coates: The Merrymakers Overture; The Jester at the Wedding Suite, “Dancing Night”; Ballad for Strings; “I Heard You Singing” from 2 Symphonic Rhapsodies; and for the last number, London Everyday Suite (and you know what that means! It means “Knightsbridge”!! That farkochta earworm I can’t get out of my head!!!) Now for goodness’ sakes John, just play the music and ditch the fatuous pronouncements and the wisecracking. You’re at your best when you’re a musician and not some cheap showman.

John Wilson Vaughan Williams 2nd
At his best: John conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no.2 (“London”), Birmingham, 2014.

John Wilson Interview (with Music!) at the BBC Studios in Salford, 12 November 2018

“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says my bonny. Interview starts at 9:50.

Included with the interview in their entirety: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), the famous barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gene de Paul, Alexander Courage), and “I’ve Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that inimitable John Wilson Orchestra way.

John Wilson Interview 2013

From a 15 June 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:

It’s rare, if ever, to hear a kind word said about James T. Aubrey, the ruthless former CBS executive hired in 1969 to turn around the stuttering fortunes of the MGM movie studio. In a four-year reign he slashed staff numbers, cancelled many projects and sold off the company’s archive in a sale that, famously, included Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

“They had no intrinsic value,” was Aubrey’s icy comment at the time.

And along with that brutal act, incredibly, he also ordered the destruction of many of the film scores in the company’s archive, trashing music from legendary films including The Wizard of Oz, High Society and Singin’ In the Rain.

These gems might have been lost forever were it not for the passion and dedication of English conductor John Wilson, who for the past 15 years has dedicated much of his time to re-creating them.

Now he has re-scored some 200 separate numbers from MGM musicals from the 1930s to the early ’60s purely by ear, a task he was driven to largely out of necessity—he loves the music and wanted his orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, to play it.

“I had to do it,” he says simply.

He’s also quite frank about the tedium of minutely reconstructing each part.

“First and foremost, I’m a conductor—it’s all I do really,” he says. “I don’t like writing music out but I have to. It’s a pain in the arse! It’s hours of toil.

“I do love hearing it back—I only do the numbers I think are really sensational—but sitting listening to four seconds of music on a loop for half an hour just to get one bass clarinet part—is that going to be anything other than just necessary?”

One might then expect Wilson to join the chorus of Aubrey critics but he is surprisingly generous towards the man who presented him with a lifetime’s work.

“It would be easy to say James Aubrey was a vandal but I think there were a lot of people around then who had no idea that this was worth keeping,” he says.

The pace at which the studio system turned out films left little time for those involved to consider their longer term significance.

“If you had said to anyone in the 1930s that what they were creating was art they would have laughed at you,” says Wilson. “It was entertainment designed to make a profit. Nobody was archively minded. A lot of the scores were an unfortunate casualty of that prevailing attitude. It would have been a case of, ‘Who wants a load of old crumbly pages’?”

Wilson’s passion for “good quality light music” sprang from listening to the TV and radio when he was growing up in Gateshead in the 1970s-80s.

After an extensive apprenticeship playing piano, arranging music and conducting for amateur dramatics, pantomimes and other productions he went on to study in London.

“By the time I arrived at the Royal College of Music at 18 I was fairly hands-on and practical,” he says. “There were never any divisions for me between David Raksin, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Strauss, Mozart and Brahms.”

Now he is working alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Andrew Haveron, bringing his favourite light music to Sydney audiences.

Haveron has led the John Wilson Orchestra since its inception.

“Andrew knows how to play this music better than anyone on the planet. That’s a real game changer,” says Wilson.

On a program that also includes music from Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and Star Wars will be Erich Korngold’s music for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.

Wilson’s face lights up. “It is,” he says, “the greatest movie score that has ever been written. I never get past how impressive it is.”

Hollywood Rhapsody is at the Sydney Opera House June 16-18.

The MGM Jubilee Overture Arranged by Johnny Green, Conducted by John Wilson and Played by the John Wilson Orchestra

Since 2004, when John and his eponymous orchestra first played this reconstituted medley, by MGM’s best-known music director, at the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall, it has become sort of their signature piece which they’ve played all over the world, from Sydney to Berlin. I can’t imagine how John was able to transcribe the score directly from hearing this lusterless 1954 film short, but my darling has the gift of patience and commitment.

John Wilson MGM Berlin

One of those rare moments when John conducted without his baton, which slid out of his grasp but was retrieved seconds later by an alert string player. Berlin, 2016.

Here are the numbers (I’ll add the composers later): “Singin’ In the Rain”; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”; “Broadway Rhythm”; “The Last Time I Saw Paris”; “Temptation” (shades of Tony Martin!); “Be My Love” (shades of Mario Lanza!); “The Trolley Song” (with the Judy sound); “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (more Judy sound); “Donkey Serenade”; and “Over the Rainbow” (the Judy sound of all Judy sounds).

Deleted: 2 bars plus “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and John, this is something I mean to chat with you about over that bot’le a’Broon.

Harriet Cohen Plays Cornish Rhapsody by Hubert Bath, Featured in the 1944 Film, Love Story

Margaret Lockwood is a dying pianist, Stewart Granger is an RAF pilot going blind in this wartime romance from Gainsborough Pictures.
Harriet Cohen

Legendary pianist, anti-fascist activist and muse to Arnold Bax, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others Harriet Cohen at the piano here. “Cornish Rhapsody” was written by Hubert Bath (who also wrote, for all you English sports fans, “Out of the Blue” for the BBC5 Sports Report).

Tintagel by Arnold Bax, Played by the London Symphony Orchestra and Conducted by Sir John Barbirolli

Arnold Bax

Between 1910 and 1920 Bax wrote a large amount of music, including the symphonic poem Tintagel, his best-known work. During this period he formed a lifelong association with the legendary pianist Harriet Cohen—at first an affair, then a friendship and, always, a close professional relationship. In the 1920s he began the series of seven symphonies which form the heart of his orchestral output, and in 1942 was appointed Master of the King’s Music.

My beloved John conducted this in Sydney in 2016.

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote In Jules Massenet’s Opera La Cendrillon At the Met, 2018

Cheshire-born Alice Coote and Kansan Joyce DiDonato, both lyric mezzos, play Prince Charming and Cinderella in The Met’s production of Massenet’s whimsical opera.

DiDonato Coote Cendrillon

Actor/director Fiona Shaw’s production of La Cendrillon makes its Glynbourne Festival debut in August, 2019, conducted by John Wilson with Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese in the title role. (Later on in the year De Niese will be starring, with Kelsey Grammer, in the first West End staging of Man of La Mancha in fifty-three years, produced by the man who was the first to bring me to climax when I was 18.)

Jacques Brel Sings “La Quete” from Man of La Mancha, 1968

Three years after Man of La Mancha was a big, big hit on Broadway, Belgian music legend Jacques Brel licensed the staging rights, adapted the book, translated the lyrics, directed the production, and starred as Don Quixote with the original Dulcinea herself, Joan Diener.

Rêver un impossible rêve
Porter le chagrin des départs
Brûler d’une possible fièvre
Partir où personne ne part
Aimer jusqu’à la déchirure
Aimer, même trop, même mal,
Tenter, sans force et sans armure,
D’atteindre l’inaccessible étoile
Telle est ma quête,
Suivre l’étoile
Peu m’importent mes chances
Peu m’importe le temps
Ou ma désespérance
Et puis lutter toujours
Sans questions ni repos
Se damner
Pour l’or d’un mot d’amour
Je ne sais si je serai ce héros
Mais mon coeur serait tranquille
Et les villes s’éclabousseraient de bleu
Parce qu’un malheureux
Brûle encore, bien qu’ayant tout brûlé
Brûle encore, même trop, même mal
Pour atteindre à s’en écarteler
Pour atteindre l’inaccessible étoile.

Jacques Brel Joan Diener La Lancha.png

Reading about ML’s revival of Man of La Mancha at the London Palladium next year brought back fond memories of the music, especially Joan Diener’s songs. Here’s my favorite one that just tears my heart out, courtesy of lyricist Joe Darion and Hindemith-trained composer Mitch Leigh:

What Do You Want of Me?

Pourquoi Fait-il Toutes Ces Choses?