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.

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The Goddess smiles on 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” or, God help us, as proclaimed by Brass Bands Monthly, a “conducting icon” (at 46!?). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

Part Two below or here.

* Update 10 August 2019: I’ve just read up on what it is about him, so 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

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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 Farnon, Hubert Parry, 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 One above or here.

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” by Romberg and Hammerstein, Sung by Helen Traubel in Deep In My Heart (MGM 1954)

From the 1928 operetta The New Moon and used again in the tune-filled MGM biopic of Sigmund Romberg.

Kim Criswell will be singing a rendition of this hot, HOT number in John’s 5 January concert in Stockholm. In fact I can’t believe he’s going to stand on the same stage when she sings this song and not get incinerated. But that’s just John I guess.

Softly As in a Morning Sunrise

Lyrics, like every Songbook song dedicated to my John, are from memory:

Softly as in a morning sunrise
The light of love comes stealing
Into a newborn day
O, flaming with all the glow of sunrise
A burning kiss is sealing
The vow that all betray
For the passions that thrill love
And lift you high to heaven
Are the passions that kill love
And let you fall to hell
So ends each story
Softly, as in an evening sunset
The light that gave you glory
Will take it all away

Suite from the Score of Truly Madly Deeply by Barrington Pheloung (1954 – 2019)

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Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman tug at our hearts in this calculated romance.

Mournful noodling distinguishes this piece. I remember the movie—adore the movie—but just don’t remember the music at all. Australian-born, Royal College of Music graduate Pheloung, who died last week at the age of 65, got some considerable write-ups for having been the composer of the popular Inspector Morse theme which, again, isn’t to my taste. I’m guessing the author of Waving, Not Drowning (which I reviewed on Amazon and below) borrowed the name for his fictional conductor, Barrington Orwell, from Pheloung. It’s a small world over there.

Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 1987): Overture to Colas Breugnon, op.24

My bonny John Wilson will be conducting this, among other works, on 21 September 2019 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester. Only thing I know about Dmitri Kabalevsky, 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’s getting known for: bright, busy, theatrical, uncomplicated, and quite entertaining. Here’s the New England Conservatory giving it a go.

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“Remember My Forgotten Man” by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, from Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros)

Remember My Forgotten Man” is performed by Joan Blondell, whose voice was dubbed by Etta Moten. Choreographer Busby Berkeley was inspired by German Expressionism and the War Veterans March on Washington, DC that occurred a few months earlier, in 1932. After watching the rushes for this number, Jack L Warner and Darryl F Zanuck, the studio production head, were so impressed that they ordered it moved to the end of the film.

My Forgotten Man

Remember my forgotten man
You put a rifle in his hand
You sent him far away
You shouted, “Hip hooray!”
But look at him today
Remember my forgotten man
You had him cultivate the land
He walked behind the plow
The sweat fell from his brow
But look at him right now
Once he used to love me
I was happy then
He used to take care of me
Won’t you bring him back again
‘Cause ever since the world began
A woman’s got to have a man
Forgetting him, you see
Means you’re forgetting me
Like my, my forgotten man
Remember my forgotten man

“The Warner Bros Story”: John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra Play the Royal Albert Hall One Last(?) Time, BBC Proms 9 August 2019

The entire program is available to listen to online on BBC Radio Streaming On Demand until 8 September 2019. Program:

  • The Sea Hawk (overture; from the 1940 film) / Erich Korngold
  • “We’re In the Money” (from Gold Diggers of 1933 / Harry Warren, Al Dubin
  • “The Desert Song” (from the 1953 film) / Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (suite; from the 1948 film) / Max Steiner
  • The Old Man and the Sea (suite, 1st movement; from the 1958 film) / Dmitri Tiomkin
  • “Seventy-Six Trombones” (from The Music Man, 1962)  / Meredith Willson
  • “Blues in the Night” (from Blues In the Night, 1941) / Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer
  • Auntie Mame (main title; from the 1958 film) / Bronislav Kaper
  • “Gotta Have Me Go with You” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin
  • “The Man That Got Away” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin [in a nod to the movie’s latest remake]
  • “Get Me to the Church On Time” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner
  • 25-MINUTE INTERVAL Proms Plus Talk: a discussion of some of the great film scores being played tonight [Hah! In a pig’s eye] with Matthew Sweet, David Benedict and Pamela Hutchinson
  • Gypsy (overture; from the 1962 film) / Jule Styne, arr Ramin and Ginzler
  • Now, Voyager (suite; from the 1942 film) / Max Steiner
  • “The Deadwood Stage” (from Calamity Jane, 1953) / Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster [a Doris Day tribute]
  • It’s Magic” (from Romance On the High Seas [correction, BBC: “On”, not “In”], 1948) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn [again, a Doris Day tribute]
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (main title; from the 1951 film) / Alex North
  • “If Ever I Would Leave You” (from Camelot, 1967) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner
  • “The Days of Wine and Roses” (from the 1962 film) Henry Mancini arr Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer
  • “Tomorrow” (from The Constant Nymph) / Erich Wolfgang Korngold
  • ENCORE: “I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner
  • ENCORE: “Harry’s Wondrous World” from the Harry Potter film series (2001-2011) / John Williams

Mikaela Bennett, Louise Dearman, Kate Lindsey, Matt Ford, singers. Maida Vale Singers, chorus. Christopher Dee, choral director. Petroc Trelawny, presenter.

[Only if you’re interested in how the program changed, click here for my old posting.]

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Well John, this isn’t a Joan Crawford movie so there’s no gold cigarette case but as I’m still in love with you and want to give you nice things, I’ll give you my informed and reasoned observations, which is something I’ve been doing all along anyway, I hope you’ll agree, and not throwing myself into the Atlantic Ocean. So let’s do this organized, going down the numbers in the program one by one because, as you recall, I used to work at ASCAP:

  • The Sea Hawk – My favorite Korngold. No surprises here. It’s good to be associated with Korngold these days, his star is certainly rising on the Continent.
  • “We’re In the Money” – Count on you to include the lyrics in pig Latin.
  • “The Desert Song” – Meh. I think the only reason you worked this in is because Kim Criswell’s singing a Romberg song in your 5 January concert in Stockholm, “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”, which is a hot, HOT number. In fact I can’t believe you’re going to stand on the same stage when she sings this song and not get incinerated. But that’s just you I guess.
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre – God, I forgot how repetitive Max Steiner can be when he’s not cribbing from Herman Hupfeld.
  • The Old Man and the Sea – One movement, mercifully short.
  • “Seventy-Six Trombones” – You shmendrick! I lost a bet to Mister Grumble that you would never, never, EVER do this number, ever. But…yeah, it was okay. You’re no Andre Rieu though.
  • “Blues in the Night” – A low-voiced woman should sing this. Preferably a woman who’s been there.
  • Auntie Mame – You know, I’d forgotten how much I like this sweet waltz.
  • “Gotta Have Me Go with You” – See below.
  • “The Man That Got Away” – Of all your singers, Louise Dearman is the only one who could’ve carried these two numbers in this room particularly, and whatever luck or good judgment (and I’m nuts about you dear, but I’m never completely confident about your judgment in these matters) brought her there I’m glad.
  • “Get Me to the Church On Time” – A little harkening back to your 2012 Proms triumph, eh? Plus you still had the scores in your closet.
  • INTERVAL – Not your fault.
  • Gypsy – Oh baby oh baby, seconds. I still have the clip of you conducting this at the 2012 Proms. Bet you didn’t shimmy like you did last time. Instead at the end I heard you toying with your audience the way the Grateful Dead used to do at Winterland. Mama approves.
  • Now, Voyager – Again, Steiner does not translate well to the concert stage. Not great for you John, since you’ll be doing him several times next year.
  • “The Deadwood Stage” – O-kay! A FULL number from a musical, complete with chorus—this is the very thing that made your name. All is forgiven, dear.
  • “It’s Magic” – What in the name of heaven possessed whoever decided to include the worst song Jule Styne ever wrote? Redeemable only—only—if Bugs Bunny sings it.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire – Oh, you’re going to have fun with this one when you have to give sexy program notes to the audience from the podium, like you did in Brighton.
  • “If Ever I Would Leave You” – Sure. Okay. Ladies need swoony time.
  • “The Days of Wine and Roses” – Nelson Riddle!? You used the freakin Nelson Riddle arrangement?? What are you trying to do, send love signals to Seth MacFarlane?
  • “Tomorrow” – You had this and your Prince Charming, Kate Lindsey, up your sleeve! What a nice surprise.
  • ENCORE “I Could Have Danced All Night” – Every soprano in the world wants to hear this song done right. She passes.
  • ENCORE “Harry’s Wondrous World” – It’s unavoidable, you’re going to do John Williams somewhere. And I know the BBCCO had the scores in their basement because you conducted this with them back in 2007.

By the way, John, glad you shaved this time. Will catch up with you in Nottingham with Vaughan Williams

 

The True Heir to Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas: “Music and Emotion Through Time” A TED Talk (2012)

Excerpt: What happens when the music stops? Where does it go? What’s left? What sticks with people at the end of a performance? Is it a melody or a rhythm or a mood or an attitude? And how might that change their lives? To me this is the intimate, personal side of music. It’s the “passing on” part, the “why” part of it. And to me that’s the most essential of all…

Michael Tilson Thomas

Now that we have unlimited access to music, what does stick with us? Well, let me share with you a story of what I mean by really sticking with us. I was visiting a cousin of mine in an old-age home, and I spied a very shaky old man making his way across the room on a walker. He came over to a piano that was there, and he balanced himself and began playing something like this. [plays notes on piano] And he said something like, “Me…boy…symphony…Beethoven…” And I suddenly got it and I said, “Friend, by any chance are you trying to play this?” [plays Beethoven concerto] And then he said, [excitedly] “Yes, yes, I was a little boy. The symphony, Isaac Stern, the concerto, I heard it.” And I thought, My God, how much must this music mean to this man, that he would get himself out of bed, across the room, to recover the memory of this music! That after everything in his life is sloughing away, still means so much to him…

Well, that’s why I take every performance so seriously, why it matters to me so much. I never know who might be there, who might be absorbing it, and what will happen to it in their life.

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Cole Porter, Sung by Virginia Bruce to Jimmy Stewart in Born to Dance (MGM 1936)

I’m warning you, bonny John (and take it from someone with experience in such matters): Don’t ever again let your baton write a check your heart won’t cash.

Virginia Bruce Jimmy Stewart

I’d sacrifice anything come what might
for the sake of having you near
In spite of a warning voice that comes in the night
and repeats and repeats in my ear
Don’t you know little fool, you never can win
Use your mentality, wake up to reality
But each time I do just the thought of you
makes me stop before I begin
‘Cause I’ve got you under my skin