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 sang a rendition of this hot, sinuously HOT number in John’s 5 January 2020 concert in Stockholm. In fact I can’t believe he stood on the same stage when she sang this song and failed to be 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

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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 who’s seen it happen time and again): Don’t ever again let your baton write a check your heart won’t cash.

Virginia Bruce Jimmy StewartCole Porter stated that he was very satisfied with this premiere rendition of his now-classic song.

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

 

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Where Or When” by Richard Rodgers & Lorenz Hart from Babes In Arms (1937)

When you’re awake
The things you think
Come from the dreams you dream
Thought has wings
And lots of things
Are seldom what they seem

Where or When

Another love song to you, John Wilson my darling, my bonny, my Tyneside lad. In Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (Warner Bros 1974), Scorsese’s fourth feature, my favorite actress in the world Ellen Burstyn plays Alice Hyatt, a New Mexico housewife suddenly widowed and left without means of support, who decides to try to return to her childhood home of Monterey, California and make a go of it again as a professional singer.

Weak and breathy as her voice is, she keeps the tune and the beat throughout the entire song—Scorsese has her sing the entire song, with intro—and something about the way Edna Rae (Burstyn’s original name) sings (imitating Peggy Lee) appeals to me so much I come back to this scene again and again. Maybe it’s that her through-line is surprisingly strong. By the way, you do notice the sheet music for Oklahoma! on the piano…

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II from Very Warm for May (1939)

Everything I want to sing to you, John Wilson, Conductor, flame of my heart, my bonny, my love. The most beautiful song ever written (at 49:28), sung in the classiest concert of The Great American Songbook ever televised, Broadway Originals (PBS, 1993), played by the Boston Pops and conducted by the sweetest musical theater restorer-preservationist who ever lived, John McGlinn, who discovered Kern’s “lost” score and died far too young at 55. Hosted by the most glamorous hostess on the Eastern Seaboard, Kitty Carlisle Hart. Orchestration of this Jerome Kern classic by Robert Russell Bennett. Milton Babbitt, that champion of musical theater and Stephen Sondheim’s teacher, wrote an illuminating analysis of this song; find it here.

All the Things You Are

You are the promised kiss of springtime
That makes the lonely winter seem long
You are the breathless hush of evening
That trembles on the brink of a lovely song
You are the angel glow that lights a star
The dearest things I know are what you are

A Great American Songbook Song for My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor: “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter from Jubilee (1935)

BBC’s resident singer/interviewer Claire Teal welcomes Proms stalwart and all-around “shouty scary” (her description) conductor John Wilson to the studio to talk about his new CD album Cole Porter in Hollywood and his orchestra’s 2014 tour, as well as spin a few swing platters, none of which we hear in entirety. Toward the end of the interview John’s mate and orchestra drummer, Matt Skelton, rips through “Begin the Beguine”.

John and ClaireClaire Teal and Conductor John Wilson, 28 September 2014.

“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (a song is music with WORDS John, you know?) who composed it at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The beguine comes from the Caribbean; it’s a combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance and was popular in Paris at the time Porter was writing.

The song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical standard popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final C2 section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form. The slight differences in each of the A sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated C2 section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.

Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”.

Pete Townshend
Begin the Beguine
Cole Porter, words+music
Another Scoop (1987)
Pete Townshend Catalog

When they begin the beguine
It brings back the sound of music so tender
It brings back a night of tropical splendor
It brings back a memory ever green

I’m with you once more under the stars
And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing
And even the palms seem to be swaying
When they begin the beguine

To live it again is past all endeavor
Except when that tune clutches my heart
And there we are, swearing to love forever
And promising never, never to part

What moments divine, what rapture serene
Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted
And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted
I know but too well what they mean

So don’t let them begin the beguine
Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember
Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember
When they begin the beguine

Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play
‘Til the stars that were there before return above you
‘Til you whisper to me once more
Darling, I love you

And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in
When they begin the beguine
When they begin the beguine

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My First Music: Miklós Rózsa’s Ben Hur Suite, Conducted by John Wilson and Played by The John Wilson Orchestra, BBC Proms 2013

I was just looking at the schedule for my bonny lad’s month of January 2020 and it’s pretty hoppin’: that concert of showtunes in Stockholma couple afternoons of Vaughan Williams in the Midlands; an afternoon of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Brett Dean at the Royal Academy; on the 20th a free talk at his alma mater, the Royal College of Music, with Durham-born Sir Thomas Allen, about his, John’s, life story. I’d be interested in hearing my bonny’s free talk, if only to find out if he’s honed his storytelling skills yet. (Which would require actually listening to him, a transcript wouldn’t be sufficient.) The rest is pretty ho-hum. I’m wondering if John ever remembers the old days and compares them to his life now. Can you imagine what fun this must’ve been to conduct?

John Wilson Rosza 4.jpgSaw Ben-Hur (20th Century Fox, 1959) first run years ago with my very Catholic mom so I remember the music as Holy music. Then after that, as Monty Python music.

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John Wilson and Rodgers & Hammerstein

I started collecting these Moments after getting right annoyed, not when I first heard my beloved conductor John Wilson cheerfully dismissing Oscar Hammerstein II‘s lyrics as being “needless”, not after the 2010 BBC Proms (an R+H tribute) or even the 2017 BBC Proms (Okla-freakin-homa! for God’s sake), but later on when I read about John in Brighton trying to conduct a sing-along with his concert audience in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the way Liverpool soccer club fans like to sing it when they’re winning—a song cue I HATE HATE HATE and would like to strangle the group responsible, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for.

John Wilson Crush SunderlandCrush Sunderland!

The rule for bringing up a Rodgers & Hammerstein song in a Moment is simple: You sing it spontaneously—knowing the words and understanding and conveying its sentimental message—at the right moment. You have to read the moment, John. In the Jack Benny scene the humor is clear because everybody knows the words to “Getting to Know You” and everybody knows about Jack’s musical vanity vs his attraction to pretty talented women; in the Cheers scene, Diane’s song cue is truly meant to comfort and inspire, and so makes for a genuine moment for everybody; in 3rd Rock, well, “Oklahoma!” is just the ultimate rouser. You don’t even have to sing it well. (So a much better sing-along song actually.)

So it kind of heartens me, John, that you won’t be going back to mangling The Great American Songbook for awhile. Here’s hoping you take a long vacation in Bermuda, my Tyneside darling. Get a tan, get laid. When you come back, commit yourself to the orchestral repertoire you do best. Remember, I’m still listening…and I think you know why.

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

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 for your sake. 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:

JW-Prom-29 (1)

  • “We’re In the Money” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) / Harry Warren, Al Dubin Count on you to include the lyrics in pig Latin.
  • “The Desert Song” (from the 1953 film) / Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II 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 (suite; from the 1948 film) / Max Steiner God, I forgot how repetitive Max Steiner can be when he’s not cribbing from Herman Hupfeld.
  • The Old Man and the Sea (suite, 1st movement; from the 1958 film) / Dmitri Tiomkin One movement, mercifully short.
  • Seventy-Six Trombones” (from The Music Man, 1962)  / Meredith Willson You shmendrick! I lost a bet to Mister Grumble that you would never, never, EVER do this number, ever. (Because, you know, it’s so freakin’ OBVIOUS.) But…yeah, it was okay. You’re no Andre Rieu though.
  • “Blues in the Night” (from Blues In the Night, 1941) / Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer A low-voiced woman should sing this. Preferably a woman who’s been there.
  • Auntie Mame (main title; from the 1958 film) / Bronislav Kaper You know, I’d forgotten how much I like this sweet waltz.
  • Gotta Have Me Go with You” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin See below.
  • “The Man That Got Away” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin [in a nod to the movie’s latest remake] 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” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner A little harkening back to your 2012 Proms triumph, eh? Plus you still had the scores in your closet.
  • 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 I still have the clip of you conducting this at the 2012 Proms (the other one). 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 (suite; from the 1942 film) No need for you to play the entire suite. It’s no musical gem, and all we’re here for the damn Love Theme!!! which by the way Charles Gerhardt wonderfully supplies, including the Steiner-written Warner Bros fanfare.
  • “The Deadwood Stage” (from Calamity Jane, 1953) / Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster [a Doris Day tribute] O-kay! A FULL number from a musical, complete with chorus—this is the very thing that made your name. All is forgiven.
  • “It’s Magic” (from Romance On the High Seas [correction, BBC: “On”, not “In”], 1948) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn [again, a Doris Day tribute] 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 (main title; from the 1951 film) / Alex North 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” (from Camelot, 1967) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner Sure. Okay. Ladies need swoony time.
  • “The Days of Wine and Roses” (from the 1962 film) Henry Mancini arr Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer Nelson Riddle!? You used the freakin’ Nelson Riddle arrangement?? What are you trying to do, send love signals to Seth MacFarlane?
  • “Tomorrow” (from The Constant Nymph) / Erich Wolfgang Korngold You had this and your Prince Charming, Kate Lindsey, up your sleeve! What a nice surprise.
  • ENCORE: “I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner Every soprano in the world wants to hear this song done right. She passes.
  • ENCORE “Harry’s Wondrous World” (from the Harry Potter series of films, 2002-2012) 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.

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

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

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 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; I’ll talk about that one of these days.) 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.