A few postings ago (“On Conductor John Wilson’s Full Dress and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, 1”) I said, “I’m in love with John but he plows through Gershwin like a bull moose and treats Bernstein like Bernstein’s Saruman and he’s Frodo.” Well…he was pretty respectful in his “Highlights from Candide” Proms show in 2015, and I have faith that somehow, somewhere during The Bernstein Year (2018) my bonny got through “The Age of Anxiety” with a clear conscience. But the crowning glory of my beloved John Wilson, Conductor‘s relationship with composer Leonard Bernstein is supposed to be, by his own estimation, West Side Story, which he claims he’s conducted “a lo’, I’ve done a few complete productions of it”—so he should know what it’s all about, at least musically, right?
But first, let’s get that other business out of the way concerning John’s WSS attempt of 2018. I HATE HATE HATE to see The Race Card being played. Usually I try to avoid having to address the issue but sometimes it’s right in your face. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you can read about it here. Then read about the outcome here.
Know what I think? In the past few years I’ve begun to believe, and I’m probably coming late to this, that when Orwell was writing about Big Brother, he was really talking about the BBC. This is probably sooo evident to a lot of people, but I’ve been paying steady attention to BBC for only about the last ten years and I’ve watched it devolve in ways previously unimaginable to me, so highly did I once esteem this radio/TV/internet broadcaster. So when I tell you I suspect that it was the Beeb behind that inane shuffling of sopranos and no one else, I do have a basis. (But not to go into that now. I’ll get to it when I talk in detail about Oklahoma!—and The Race Card—again.)
To get back to John, The John Wilson Orchestra, and West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms, 2018. Why the story above tells another possible story: One – soprano announces her withdrawal from the BBC Proms (that is, her reneging on her contract with the BBC) in April; two – five months later in August the new soprano is announced, a blatantly bogus attempt at more politically-correct casting, but anyway; three – at the same time, and only then, the show’s musical format is, for the first time in wide advertising, properly described as the official concert version. Which, let’s face it, makes the racial makeup of any of the singers totally irrelevant. Do you hear me squawking over Kim Criswell doing “Bali Ha’i”?
So in all this hoo-ha there’s John, who has absolutely nothing to do with the matter but nevertheless possibly, probably feels just a bit tainted by it, and who goes to his beloved orchestra with a “Gentlemen, ladies, let’s rise above this, shall we?” attitude, and a “Let’s give it all we’ve got!” kind of gungho-ness I last saw in Back to Bataan.
Because that’s how it came out in the music. Listening to the concert online, I got that same unsettling feeling you get some nights when you suspect your boyfriend’s unusually poundy lovemaking isn’t actually directed at you. It was almost unbearable to take. Even Mister Grumble left the room. Before leaving he pointed an accusing finger at me. “This is your John Wilson,” he intoned darkly. “He’s not mine,” I answered. “He belongs to England!” But I couldn’t pull off that Vivien Leigh delivery so that bit just died.
But you know, I think that’s the crux of the matter, John being English and a Geordie and therefore too pigheaded to truly understand the American idiom. That, and Big Brother Beeb breathing down your neck, can cramp anyone’s sense of freedom, freedom of course being the American idiom.
I’m assuming, of course, that John, vaunted musicologist that he is, truly wants to understand the American idiom.
Of the 2013 concert, said Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle: “One of the great revelations of Thursday’s dynamic concert performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony was just how remarkable the score sounds in isolation… Bernstein’s creation stood more or less alone as a compendium of all the musical references swirling around in that great musical clearinghouse that was his mind.”
Above Lenny and MTT: Quartet from the ground-breaking San Francisco Symphony concert version of West Side Story, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, Bernstein’s true heir to the podium. Below: The Dance at the Gym sequence from West Side Story. Once again, MTT with the SFSO, 2013, who released the recording on their own label in 2014.
- “The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson”
- “The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits”