John’s pop fans in Britain have nothing to worry about—all the goodness of The John Wilson Orchestra (1994-2019) is now squeezed into his new/old/new group, the Sinfonia of London in their brand-new “Hollywood’s Greatest Hits” tour. Thank Kennedy Street Productions, who brought Barry Manilow and Gladys Knight to UK’s shores, for this shrewd spectacular run aimed at the 2023 Holiday Season. Now we’ll hear the rest of the movie music John’s been transcribing all these years.
More info to come as I find it. I understand since 2 December 2022 tickets have been flying off the box office shelves.
After wading through the unsurprising reviews of John’s 16 July concert at the Royal Albert, I thought I’d list his upcoming performances:
Above: I’m afraid nothing on this list arouses my delight except the Martin-Blane standard, “Love”, here suavely sung by the co-composer himself, Ralph Blane; kickass arrangement by Ralph Burns, who 6 years later orchestrated Richard Rodgers’s No Strings.
The dates link to the ticket sites. The other highlights link to available recordings.
So speaks my beloved conductor John Wilson: ‘I am delighted beyond words to be taking Sinfonia of London on our first live tour, playing in some of the UK’s most exciting venues. All ninety of us are looking forward to welcoming audiences who know the orchestra through our recordings, our televised appearances at the BBC Proms, as well as anyone coming to hear us for the first time. We hope our programme will thrill and inspire you!’
John and O don’t always perform semi-staged fully-voiced musicals badly at their BBC Proms appearances at the Royal Albert Hall—their 2012 My Fair Lady was pretty much all right, no shenanigans there (pronounced The Guardian, “John Wilson’s adapted score—which borrows from Andre Previn’s movie arrangement—adds a sparkle to even the most drearily expository songs: the flutes somehow sound cheekier, the brass ruder, the strings zingier”). And in fact their 2014 Kiss Me Kate was as it was meant to be: big, sexy and playful. Winsome John even gets a speaking part!
Now, we all know about “Too Darn Hot” with its descriptions of nice normal congress (“I’d like to sup with my baby tonight / Play the pup with my baby tonight”) and “Tom, Dick or Harry” with its lyrics “I’m a maid mad to marry and would take double quick / Any Tom, Dick or Harry, any Tom, Harry or Dick” and the lilting refrain “A-dick-a-dick dick dick, a-dick-a-dick dick dick”…
But did you ever stop to think about the song “Always True to You in My Fashion”? Which was one of my party pieces years and years ago (alternating with “I Cain’t Say No” from Oklahoma). I’ve given it some thought and what I worked out is this: Lois isn’t just your ordinary sex supplier—no, she specializes in those extra-special somethings that make a man (well, certain men) happy and willing to pay top dollar for them. Not to mention that in every verse she pretty much announces her rates for rough stuff, plus a type of sex play I could never get into:
There’s a madman known as Mac Who is planning to attack If his mad attack means a Cadillac, okay!…
I would never curl my lip To a dazzling diamond clip If a clip meant “Let ‘er rip!” I’d not say nay…
There’s an oilman known as Tex Who is keen to give me checks And his checks I fear Means that sex is here to stay…
…ending always with the last line, “But I’m always true to you darling in my fashion / Yes I’m always true to you darling in my way.” Which to me is the number-one indication she keeps it hot with her boyfriend because with him it’s, like I said, nice normal congress. You know, vanilla. But with her clients? As you may recall I was in The Business, where scenarios abound. (Remember Basingstoke?) All this to say it amuses me to no end to watch Lois size up within two seconds The Conductor, cunningly portrayed by my beloved John Wilson. Because I know exactly what’s going on in her head, in descending order:
From MusicalCriticism.com, 2010: Although the BBC Proms are renowned for bringing many of the world’s greatest classical artists to London for a two-month-long festival, the concert that drew the most attention last year was—quite unexpectedly—a programme of songs from the classic MGM musicals of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. The man behind it all was John Wilson, the Newcastle[sic]-born conductor who has spent years reconstructing many of these great scores—which include The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris—so that they can be performed again in their original orchestrations.
Yet Wilson has many strings to his bow. He’s the Principal Conductor of the Northern Sinfonia, which is based at Gateshead’s gorgeous modern concert hall, The Sage; he regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras; he’s a regular on Friday Night is Music Night; he orchestrated Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for a BBC production of Gormenghast, for which he won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Score; and he was in charge of the music for Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey’s biopic about Bobby Darin.
Wilson’s current engagement is a new departure: he’s making his debut with Opera North in a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s little-known Ruddigore. It’s the first time he’s performed with an opera company, but it’s clear that he’s a theatre animal, and the critics have been raving about the production—Tim Ashley in The Guardian has even given it five stars out of five, and described it as “one of the great Gilbert and Sullivan stagings” I caught up with Wilson in between performances to ask him about his approach to the piece, and also about his future plans.
“I grew up with it, and I’ve always loved it,” says the conductor when I ask him why he’s now conducting Gilbert and Sullivan. “I did a lot of it when I was a kid, with local amateur groups. I’ve always thought of it as the starting point of modern American musical theatre. You’d have to have a wooden heart not to be affected by Sullivan’s music.”
We all know the big G&S hits like The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance—so why is Ruddigore less well-known? “It’s tricky to stage,” Wilson replies. “The ghost scene in the second act didn’t work on the first night of the original production. Also, the first act is very sombre in a lot of respects. But I think it’s got some of Sullivan’s best music in it. Just after The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their powers. The ghost music is some of Sullivan’s best music for the theatre, in my opinion. And Mad Margaret’s aria is one of the most ravishing things he ever wrote.
“Opera North’s production has been very careful to avoid the accretions that have occurred over the years—that’s the case both for Jo Davies the director, and I. We’ve gone back to the original text, and I think it comes up fresh as paint.”
Why has the production been such a success? “We’ve had absolute faith in the text. One of the earliest questions people kept asking was, ‘Who have you got to update the book?’ And Jo Davies said she would no sooner get someone in to rewrite Gilbert than she would to rewrite Oscar Wilde. It just needs to be well directed, well sung and well played.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in rehearsals on the text. People think of Oklahoma! as the first musical in which the songs propel the narrative, but all the way through Ruddigore the songs are completely interwoven with the drama. And I think that a crucial part of the success of this production has been getting the text across to the audience. That’s helped us to communicate the clarity of thought behind the text, too.”
What’s the challenge of conducting this piece? “It’s not straightforward in any way, shape or form. It’s an incredibly tricky piece. Apart from the technical things like keeping the robust quality of the music in a slow 6/8, the most important and difficult thing is making sure that every single word of the text is heard. Everything has to be spot on; it’s not just a case of getting the tempi and balance right. A couple of the reviews hinted that they thought the patter songs were a notch too slow, but then in the same breath they commented that you could hear every word of them. That might be because we’ve hit on tempi that allow us to convey the text!
“There again, in our favour with Sullivan, everything’s beautifully scored. You can always hear the orchestra—he never overscores. I think that’s the crucial thing. And the lightness of touch, obviously. It needs to be well articulated and well defined, and you need to get the sparkle into it.”
I ask Wilson whether doing a G&S piece with an opera company results in a more ‘operatic’ performance than might otherwise be the case. “I think what you have to aim for is a sort of middle ground,” he responds. “A lot of these roles weren’t written for opera singers—they were meant for what we might call ‘musical comedians’. We’ve tried to sing it legitimately, but in certain of the numbers, the text takes precedence over the music. That’s something we’ve worked on together. The dramatic impact of the song mustn’t suffer just because you want to show off your lyric baritone. I have to say, the cast is so young and talented, as well as very flexible. They’ve risen to all of these challenges, and we’ve not had any stylistic issues. They’ve taken it all on board!
“It’s my first time working with an opera company—I’ve done musicals all my life, and concert performances, but I’ve never done an operatic piece in the theatre. It feels like I’m suddenly working in 3D rather than 2D!” He also says he enjoys going to the opera enormously, and ‘skips off to a dress rehearsal’ whenever he can. Would he come back? “If they invite me, sure thing!”
John Wilson’s portfolio involves orchestration, arranging and conducting. What does he think of as his main activity? “I enjoy doing all music—I’ve never made the kinds of divisions that many people seem to have to make. I’m doing Szymanowski and Rachmaninov in the next couple of months, and then I’m doing Rodgers and Hammerstein with Kim Criswell and Brent Barrett with the CBSO.
“If I had to fill in my profession on a form, I would put ‘conductor’. But I’m a musician first and foremost. It’s a bit like having several rooms in the same house: I’ve always written arrangements and reconstructions, and I think that’s a service, really, for a lot of this music because it wouldn’t exist otherwise. It’s music that I love: the MGM music that I did at the Proms last year  is music that I’ve loved all my life. It’s a labour of love.”
And why was that Prom quite so successful? “It’s a combination of a few things, I think. People are familiar with the general outline of the repertoire—they know the tunes and they’ve seen the films, so they’re aware of it. And it worked perfectly in that setting. It was scheduled on the television on a Saturday night at a time when people were in, and they stayed tuned in. We had about 80,000 letters in total after the concert, from people all over the country.
“The thing that particularly came across was how good the orchestra was, and how much the players seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was a very serious orchestra, filled with star players from all over Britain and Europe. I think that such a virtuoso orchestra playing music which was written for the finest musicians in the world at the time could never not have an impact. The fact that it had a bigger impact than I thought it might was a pleasant surprise. I received fan letters every day for the rest of the year about it, and I’m still receiving them.”
The public is clearly dying to hear more of both this repertoire and these performers, and evidently Wilson is only too happy to oblige. “We have a UK tour with my orchestra in November, which I’m looking forward to. We want to make recordings, and we have plans for that. We’ve also got invitations to festivals for the rest of the year, so we’re certainly capitalising on it.”
Wilson has also just become co-Principal Conductor of the Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead. ‘They’ve divided the post up into several parts, with Thomas Zehetmair as the Music Director. In addition to light music concerts, I’ll be doing programmes of straightforward symphonic repertoire. There’s an audience for all kinds of music up there, so I want to put various aspects of my talents to use.”
Last summer, the Sinfonia put on a magnificent concert of My Fair Lady starring the veteran actor Anthony Andrews as Henry Higgins. Happily, it’s the start of more to come: “We did two performances—an afternoon and an evening—and we played the entire score from beginning to end, with ne’er a cut in sight. It’s part of a series we’ve started up there, in which we do semi-staged performances of classic musicals where we play every note of the score in the original orchestration. We’re doing Show Boat in July, and the plan is to do one every year.”
But in spite of Wilson’s growing success and fame, music is a lifelong passion rather than the means for becoming a celebrity. “I’m not terribly ambitious. I’ve always loved music and I was very lucky to be encouraged as a kid. I didn’t have any form of training until I was in my teens, but my mother gave me a very basic introduction to the piano, and I was encouraged by my music teachers at school. I started playing for amateur theatricals, and then someone became sick and couldn’t conduct, so I did it. I did some pantomimes, where you have to do orchestrations for the forces at your disposal. It all started from there, really!
“I then went to the Royal College of Music as a percussionist, because that’s what I studied at school, then I changed to composition and conducting. I formed an orchestra while I was at college, and that was the beginning of forming the John Wilson Orchestra. By that time, I’d done quite a lot of conducting in the north, doing amateur shows and G&S. Then I studied conducting at college, and I’d always had a genuine passion for light music. So whilst I might have been pigeonholed for several years as a conductor of light music, it did mean I was pigeonholed for something, and that gave me the chance to have a career.“
Last November, he closed the BBC Concert Orchestra’s year-long celebration of British light music with a complete performance of Johnny Mercer and Andre Previn’s The Good Companions that was performed in Watford and broadcast on Radio 3. “I love that piece!” he enthuses. “It was a real labour of love for me—it took me a year to put it back together. In 1974, the show was re-scored for amateur uses. They took all the lovely woodwind doubles out, as well as one of the trumpet parts, and they added violas. I knew that this wasn’t the original orchestration because of a note in the vocal score, and because there are things you can hear on the original cast album that weren’t in the score that was available. I spent forever trying to track down the original full scores, and it seemed like they didn’t exist.
“When I eventually received in the post a big box of materials marked ‘Original West End Parts’, I couldn’t believe my luck. And they were about 80% complete. So I spent a year making an edition from them, filling in the gaps and making sure that it was immaculately laid out. We put it together in an incredibly short space of time, and it didn’t turn out too badly—I was quite pleased with it.”
Any plans to do more? “I’m doing one of the Ivor Novello shows next year. I don’t know which one, but I’m going to restore one of them. Again, I’m hoping that something of Glamorous Night or The Dancing Years survives in its original orchestration. They were all simplified for the road companies, and one wants to do the originals. That was the great thing about The Good Companions—you had Angela Morley and Herb Spencer doing the orchestrations, and they were geniuses.”
When I ask Wilson what his favourite repertoire is, he responds: “My favourite thing is the variety—I’d just get bored if I did the same thing all the time. Of course, I love all of the 1950s Hollywood studio orchestra stuff, because the execution is so impressive, as well as the writing and the construction of it all. You have to take your hat off to Alfred Newman and the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra. You’re never going to get any better than that—ever.
Can he really have no ambitions at all? “I have lots of personal ambitions—I’d love to increase my knowledge and capabilities—but in terms of “career”, I just tend to sit and pray that the phone will ring! But I’m very proactive about creating things that I want to do—I’m doing the whole of Singin’ in the Rain at the Royal Festival Hall in November with the Philharmonia. I do it simply because I love the music. My success, such as it is, is a result of wanting to recreate great pieces of music that have been lost.”
To close, we talk about what he would like to be remembered for: “I hope I live a bit longer first! But if I had any legacy, it would be for making light music the serious business that it used to be.” ~Dominic McHugh
I told him it reminded me of one of my favorite flicks from the golden pre-Code days, The Mask of Fu Manchu (MGM, 1932), starring Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu and Myrna Loy as his “ugly and insignificant” daughter, Fah Lo See. With Karen Morley, Charles Starrett, etc etc and a cast of literally hundreds of male extras of various types. Was especially partial to the oiled and muscular mamelukes.
Film Music – Creditably conducted a program of “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 in successive interviews) 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 fancy palm courts of the hotels Grosvenor House and Royal Park (Times music critic Clive Davis gave the young students a “golden”—John’s word—review) plus Pizza On the Park, actually a swanky cabaret, and The Boatyard, a trendy restaurant in Essex; recorded 8 dance/swing albums for Vocalion; nominated for Grammy 2006 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 with Richard Rodney Bennett 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…