From The Guardian, Fiona Maddocks: “The final work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, was one of the best, most alert and detailed performances you could hope for. Wilson, whose gestures on the podium are so unassuming he appears to do nothing more than beat time, had scrutinised the score, and asked probing questions about every familiar phrase, making it fresh. The Sinfonia of London, mostly a recording ensemble, is made up of leading principals or chamber musicians who want to play for Wilson. You can hear their devotion.”
MY BELOVED CONDUCTOR SPEAKS!
[Proms Director] David Pickard and I had a conversation about Sinfonia Of London’s connection in the past to English music, principally John Barbirolli’s famous record of English music for strings and it is as we know Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary so I thought opening with the Tallis Fantasia would be (a) good thing. And built that around I guess the English romantics and a fairly recent work by a living composer, Huw Watkins, who is Welsh and one of my favorite composers and a piece which he actually happened to write for Adam Walker, who’s our principal flute. The rest of the program con-sists of things you might know and you might not know. Walton’s Partita, which is a tour de force but it’s rarely done, and I think that’s because it’s so impossibly difficult. … Very difficult! One of the first violins came up to me and he said, “This is absolutely bloody murder!” We really sweated over it, and I—I hope to pull it off.
JOHANNES BRAHMS Variations on a Theme of Josef Haydn “The Philharmonia 75th anniversary CD box set contains some really thrilling performances from a dazzling array of soloists and conductors—Karajan, Giulini, Klemperer, Kletzki and Cantelli among them—but the ones I’m most fascinated by are the concerts Toscanini gave with the orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1952 which provide a wonderful snapshot of the Philharmonia Orchestra live on stage in its first decade.” / John’s right on this one, can’t do better than Arturo Toscanini at the RFH in ’52 with the Philharmonia
MAURICE RAVEL Daphnis et Chloe Suite no 2 “Once it became apparent that we would all be spending our days at home, I decided to embark on a project I had been putting off for years:correcting all of the many thousands of errors in Ravel’s masterpiece, Daphnis et Chloe. I soon became thoroughly absorbed in this rather epic task and ended up completing a brand new edition of the whole ballet which I will be recording next year. Here’s the peerless Charles Munch conducting the Second Suite.” / Here’s Simon Rattle instead doing this ravishing Ravel suite with the Berlin Philharmonic
EDWARD ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius “I’ve been making my way through all 109 discs of the new Warner Classics Barbirolli box set—a conductor whose work I come back to time and time again. There’s a fervour and intensity to his music making that is utterly compelling and this legendary performance of Elgar’s greatest work has, for me, no equal.” / Elgar, a devout Roman Catholic, was something of a religious mystic and this is evident in his much of his work, no more so than in this looong, stately but yummy setting to Cardinal Newman’s musing on death and redemption
TEDDY WILSON Don’t Blame Me by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields “I love, love, love Teddy Wilson’s piano playing—I’ve had his solo piano discs on a loop for days…” / Nah. If you want to hear one of the greatest swing* pianists ever at his best, here he is doing “I Got Rhythm” by the Gershwin brothers
KEELY SMITH Cocktails for Two by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow “Songs—in all their guises(!!!)**—have always been at the centre of my musical life. The great American songwriters from the first half of the last century gave us so many treasures and I’d never want to be without them. Last week my trombonist friend, Andy Wood, reminded me just how great Keely Smith is.” / When I was a little tiny teeny girl, I thought listening to Keely Smith singing this lush Charles Trenet / Albert Beach songbook standard “I Wish You Love” on the radio was like walking through an enchanted forest
*I am astonished that John actually, correctly, described Teddy Wilson as a Swing musician rather than put him into the catchall Jazz bag, which I’d have expected him to do, considering who was his teacher. His teacher was Richard Rodney Bennett. My teacher (at CUNY) was YUSEF LATEEF (download his 1957 album Jazz Mood here in full).
**John, are you conflating song with melody, or what? Only asking as a humble member of your audience.
It happened one evening in July, 1973. I was 18. I had just gotten that job as night solfeggist at ASCAP only a couple of weeks earlier, which is in itself a very interesting story I’ll have to tell you one of these days. Only now let’s get back to me walking down Broadway from 63rd. I loved walking home to the Village after work on a summer evening, when all of midtown was still buzzy with life and good times. After the night shift, some of my fellow solfeggists would go across the street to O’Neal’s Balloon to drink with the fancy Lincoln Center crowd (here’s my own favorite table showing up in Annie Hall), but I got a bigger kick being below 54th with all the theater people. On this particular evening I was approaching 46th…and right there on the corner of 46th stood a really good-looking guy, tall and blond and nicely dressed, who seemed to be scoping out one by one all the passers-by. For some reason he lit upon me. He got my attention. Then he asked me if I knew where a good jazz club could be found, the way you might ask any passer-by about a mailbox or the way to the Empire State Building… I told him I was new in town. Then he suggested we (“we”!) buy a newspaper and sit down somewhere and check the listings together. Oh, I was game. My first New York adventure! We went across the street to Howard Johnson’s where he bought me a hamburger and told me about himself. He told me he was an agent. He’d just put his client on the plane that day—his client having just been on The Dick Cavett Show promoting his new film, a comedy-horror flick that’s now a classic—and he himself was going back to London in the morning. He told me his client’s name, which I recognized at once, and then he gave me his card, which I kept for years until I gave it to an actor friend who said he was “looking for a UK rep”… Then he asked me about myself, all the nice polite questions a man’ll ask you beforehand… But we also talked about show business, shows, show music. I told him I liked Man of La Mancha. Having found no jazz clubs worth going to that night, we left HoJo’s and walked over to 5th Avenue, where we strolled back to his hotel room at the St Regis. I was ready for anything, expecting nothing. Even when he pulled the line, “Let’s get out of these hot clothes, shall we?” with that gorgeous limey accent of his, I still wasn’t sure we were on the road to making it…until we started making it. At that point we hadn’t even kissed. But oh, how he made up for it! I wasn’t a virgin, but here was the first man I ever slept with who actually knew how to take his time pleasuring a woman. By the time I was under him, gazing down at the back of his incredibly sexy legs, an electric shock went through me, and for the first time in my life, I orgasmed. So that’s the story of my first New York hookup. We parted in the morning, wishing each other well, and I even made it back to the boarding house in time for breakfast. A perfect sexual encounter with a happy ending.
I’m telling you this, John, because what Michael Linnit made me feel that night is nothing compared to how you made me feel when you conducted Elgar’s Bach Fantasia in Sydney three years ago. I’m not kidding. I had just fallen in love with you when I saw you shimmy to a Jule Styne tune in some video… But this time (it was about 2 weeks later) there was only you and the music on the radio. I’m not even crazy about Elgar, I was waiting for your Prokofiev. But I was so keyed up—for the past couple of weeks I had been vibrating with love for you—that when a certain chord was played in the Elgar, a wave rolled through me, it was just so yummy… But that wasn’t all. As I lay there gasping, a little voice in my head went, You fool! Don’t you remember who’s doing this? And so I came again, this orgasm coming over me like a wave meant to drown…and I reached for you and knocked the lamp off the night table.
One day I’ll tell you about the other times (Vaughan Williams, Richard Rodgers). But I just wanted to let you know now how much you’ve meant to me, how much you still mean, even when you’re not wearing full dress.
A few insights on the orchestral pieces of the lively and prolific Richard Rodney Bennett (“A Collage Artist” will be the post’s title) to be finished as soon as I, one, do a little necessary sex writing, and, two, actually buy the complete Chandos 4-volume set of the work of John’s distinguished mentor, conducted by John. For now, here’s a recording from a BBC broadcast (yes, bonny John is conductor) that starts off with a few words from the composer himself:
NOTE: “[The English temperament] is disciplinable, and steadily obedient to certain limits, but retaining an inalienable part of freedom and self-dependence, [with a propensity for] spending its exertions within a bounded field, the field of plain sense, of practical utility.” ~ Matthew Arnold The Study of Celtic Literature (1867)
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!’
Back in October 2019, on extremely short notice, my brilliant, bonny John Wilson substitute-conducted the state-run radio orchestra of Ireland, RTE, in a program of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, and Dvořák’s quite listenable Symphony No 8 in G major.
Pinch-hitting for a sick colleague in Glasgow a month later, John conducted Brahms’s Haydn Variations, as well as Dvořák’s crowd-pleasing Symphonic Variations.
But it’s John’s performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings that really made me sit up. Written by Benjamin Britten for his live-in sweetie Peter Pears—who sang it (above) in 1943—Serenade, with its unlikely musical combination, is a remarkably rich work, just the kind of music that John should be involved in at this point in his career. Of course he conducted it splendidly in Glasgow.
From The Herald, April 2017: What does Englishness mean in early 20th century orchestral music? Is there a discernible sense of national identity woven through the symphonies of Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams, the tone poems of Holst and Bax and Delius? And if so, does it mean the same thing when we hear it now as it did then? These are contentious opening gambits. In 2017, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, we should know better than to prescribe any essentialising nationalistic attributes to a disparate group of artists. Yet for conductor John Wilson there is something in it, just not in any flag-clutching way. “The connection I can make with national identity is that there’s something about the melancholy of this music which is actually at the heart of the English character,” says John. “That’s what I respond to. That longing for something that was probably never there in the first place. It’s a peculiar English romance.”
John Wilson is the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s new associate guest conductor, taking over the role that Andrew Manze held from 2010 to 2014. He’s planning to use his position as an advocate for 20th century English, as well as American, music. Next week he’s in Glasgow to conduct Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings with tenor Ian Bostridge and horn player Christopher Parkes. Also on the programme is Elgar’s Third Symphony—a score that was unfinished until 1997, when composer Anthony Payne completed it using Elgar’s abandoned fragments. The aspects of struggle, doubt and nagging melancholy that linger just under the surface of so much of Elgar’s music are all there in the symphony, but they are made doubly poignant by the thwarted potential of a work that could have changed the scope of English orchestral music. For Wilson, Elgar’s finest moments equate to the musical clout of Beethoven.
Wilson is best known as a conductor of light music. He founded the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, when he was just 22, and since then his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing. On the one side, he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall, and on the other, his attention to detail and the calibre of the musicians in his hand-picked band (including BBCSSO violinist Greg Lawson) have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy and camp. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to nearly 25 years of period-performance championing by Wilson.
By branding his specialist orchestra with his own name, Wilson designated which repertoire he would be most widely associated with. Yet although he will always stand up for light music, in his various other conducting ventures he’s keen to emphasise that his passion extends to other repertoire. “I didn’t study MGM musicals at the Royal Conservatory of Music, I studied conducting,” he says. “I got a reputation for doing light music because that got all the publicity, but really light music was my dessert.” He smiles. ”I’ve always taken dessert seriously. As Karajan said, ‘light music was my medicine.’”
Wilson was born in Gateshead and grew up without anyone telling him what qualified as proper music and what should be considered naff. “The whole light music repertoire belonged to a couple of generations above me,” he told me. “This was the music they danced to, courted to, got married to. A lot of people have a nostalgic connection to it. Some of my professors were sniffy because they were too close to it, because it was the pop music of their youth and therefore something to be scorned at, but that doesn’t exist for my generation. We can see that a Cole Porter song is as serious in its craft as a Brahms symphony.”
Besides his admiration for the BBCSSO’s musicians (“am I allowed to say they are even better than I remembered? These dazzlingly good string principals”) Wilson says he was drawn to his new Glasgow position because this orchestra’s management never pigeonholed him as an MGM guy when others in the industry did.
“I first conducted the BBCSSO donkey’s years ago”—it was 2002—“doing light music and Christmas classics, that kind of thing. Then they kept asked me back to do interesting work that reflected my musical development. They weren’t always trying to shoehorn me into what everyone else thought I did exclusively. As I broadened my repertoire, they were happy to let me explore that. That’s why the relationship has lasted and why I’ve kept coming back.”
Now he’s looking forward to regular Glasgow visits for radio broadcasts and recordings for the Chandos label, starting with the music of Richard Rodney Bennett: “There’s a whole body of really eloquent fine music there that needs recording,” he enthuses. Next season his concert programmes include Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Walton’s First Symphony; Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony by American composer Roy Harris. In past interviews he has told me that his Desert Island Discs choices would include the Elgar symphonies, the Vaughan Williams symphonies and possibly American music by Copland, John Adams and Harris: next season he’ll be doing well by his wish list.
And, of course, there is next week’s billing of Elgar and Britten. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” Wilson says, “but I play these English programmes because I think that English music needs advocates. For years it was the province of a handful of English conductors, and when they died it went a little bit into the wilderness. I’m keen for it to come out of its old-fashioned straight jacket and to be seen for what it was, which was the flowering of a national school. It’s not just pretty pastoral wanderings.”
“Oddly enough,” he adds, back on the national identity train of thought, “some of the occasional pieces of Walton or Elgar might carry political implications, but they were never meant to be the great music of these composers. These were world composers and they knew it, even if the world at the time didn’t. They expressed global human sentiment. Vaughan Williams is a towering figure in terms of the great human statements—his Ninth Symphony and Sea Symphony are blazing visionary works for all of humankind. There’s a certain amount of reclaiming that needs to happen. There you go: does that amount to a mission statement?” ~Kate Molleson
From Gramophone.com, September 2016: “I’ve always been fascinated in the byways of music,” says conductor John Wilson, picking up the score to Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony and half-studying the typeface while he talks. “Back at college when all my friends were getting in a lather about Mahler, I was more into Lord Berners and bits of Walton that people hadn’t heard for years.”
Wilson is a self-styled anomaly in the conducting world. He’s utterly serious about light music, cheerfully and loquaciously Geordie in a profession that traditionally trades on pomp and grand personas. He’s as fastidious about authentic performance practise as any baroque specialist, but the repertoire to which he applies those principles of original instrumentation and historically informed interpretations is one that only recently earned enough clout to make it into the Proms. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to two decades and counting of championing by Wilson himself. Because since founding the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing: on the one side he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall. On the other side, his attention to detail and the calibre of his hand-picked band have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy, camp and saccharine.
By giving his own name to his own specialist orchestra, Wilson determined the repertoire that he would be best associated with. And yet in his other conducting positions—Principal Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra Dublin, newly appointed Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra—he is keen to emphasise his aptitude for broader repertoire. “I always took an interest in that exciting time after the First World War,” he tells me by way of example. “And I probably have the biggest satisfaction from getting my hands on Brahms.” His desert island conducting choices? “Oooh, I’d take the Elgar symphonies, the Vaughan Williams symphonies, possibly American music by Copland, John Adams, Roy Harris.” His latest recording is the second in a series of Copland orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos. There isn’t much trace of light music in the jagged edges and sharp punches of the Second Symphony, the Organ Symphony or the Symphonic Ode.
Wilson maintains that there has never been a division in his mind between music that is ‘light’ or music that is ‘serious’, but accepts that isn’t the case for everyone. “The root of my passion is my love of songs,” he says. “Songs of Britten or Ireland or Cole Porter. Ella and Frank singing Gershwin. I just assumed it would all be part of my repertoire and I never put anything in a ghetto. So when we [the John Wilson Orchestra] did our MGM Prom in 2009 and a telly audience of 3.5 million saw that real seriousness of research had been applied to those scores, I think that’s when I felt a big shift in attitudes. My orchestra had spent 15 years learning how to play that music. I put together the performing editions just as any musicologist would prepare Handel or Vivaldi. Maybe it was because it was the the Proms, maybe because it was an orchestra full of incredibly serious players, but somehow we managed to get a lot of people who wouldn’t normally go near that repertoire to sit up and listen.”
Wilson was born in Gateshead on Tyneside in 1972—which, if you do the maths, made him just 22 when he founded the John Wilson Orchestra. “The whole light music repertoire belonged to a couple of generations above me,” he says. “This was the music they danced to, courted to, got married to. A lot of people have a nostalgic connection to it. Some of my professors were sniffy because they were too close to it, because it was the pop music of their youth and therefore something to be scorned at, but that doesn’t exist for my generation. We can see that a Cole Porter song is as serious in its craft as a Brahms symphony.” That’s the kind of bold claim that earned him a few raised eyebrows as a student of composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where a couple of teachers told him he should be immersing himself in “proper” compositional techniques.
But even then he already knew exactly what he wanted to get from sitting through those classes in advanced orchestration, exactly what repertoire he wanted to use those tools to excavate. “I’ve produced all my own parts for the Strauss waltzes with all the repeats written out. Heck—I just made the print bigger and suddenly orchestras enjoy playing them because it’s not a panic trying to find which bloody repeat to play!” Wilson is pragmatic about such unromantic things as notation size and syntax. “If the music is printed too small,” he shrugs, “half of your brain gets used up just trying to decipher the stuff. I want my players to be totally involved in the the music. The librarian of any orchestra,” he adds, “is a crucial figure. Unsung heroes.”
We’re talking at MediaCity in Salford, where Wilson has just conducted a lunchtime concert with the BBC Philharmonic and is preparing for an afternoon session recording Copland’s 15-minute Second Symphony of 1933, also known as the Short Symphony. This is not the populist, generous Copland of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo or Fanfare for the Common Man—repertoire included on the first instalment of the Wilson/BBC Phil Chandos series. About that first disc, Gramophone’s reviewer wrote that “Wilson secures superb playing from the BBC Philharmonic… the three ballets receive strongly characterised interpretations, as piquant and affecting in the slower passages as they are punchy and ebullient in the faster ones.”
Now Wilson describes the music on the second disc as “hard as nails” and “totally uncompromising” in comparison. “He had created this instantly identifiable sound—the ‘wide-open spaces’ sound that we all know and love. Nobody had done it before and suddenly loads of other American composers started imitating him. But he was also a proper composer, ferociously accomplished, who developed ideas out of very small cells. He had worked hard as a student of Nadia Boulanger to get his technique into shape. He worked hard every day of his life, and he knew about concision. The Second Symphony is compact and concise, which is never a bad thing… He stops once he’s said enough!”
Wilson is sanguine about the particular challenges of bringing this compact, astringent score to life. “I’ve been trying to analyse what makes it quite so difficult,” he says. “There are plenty of pieces with changing time signatures and rhythmic complexities: that’s meat and drink to orchestral players. But with Copland’s Second Symphony there isn’t a single extra note in the score. It’s like Mozart or Rossini or Mendelssohn in that it’s got to be so perfect for it to work. There’s nowhere to hide.” He looks up and grins. “It’s the musical equivalent of standing in the middle of Oxford Street in your underpants!”
But should this music sound perfect? Has one side-effect of Copland’s wide-open-spaces popularity been a performance tradition that flattens out the edges, softens the harshness? “Possibly,” Wilson acknowledges. “And actually you do want a bit of tussle. We need to play the music in until that tussle becomes something we can do with conviction and style rather than with difficulty. But no, I don’t think that these pieces—the Ode, the Variations, the Second Symphony—I don’t think they’ve been played enough for any performance tradition to have been built up. I’m hoping that by recording them now we can be new advocates.”
Since lunchtime Wilson has changed out of concert dress and into his civvies—jeans, Adidas trainers, untucked checked shirt, thick-rimmed square black glasses. That casualness transfers to the way he works with the orchestra, too. During the session he is brisk, friendly, funny, courteous. He doesn’t waste time and he seems to know what he’s looking for: a sound that is bright and punchy, rhythms that are super-crisp and projection that is sharp-edged, almost metallic. He also seems to know how to get it quickly, with a minimum number of instructions. The physical gestures he makes are notably low key, and when the music hits a catchy rhythm he begins to wiggle. He talks with a smile but he doesn’t crack many jokes.
He’s not an incessant stopper, either: he lets the orchestra play for a good five minutes before interrupting. “Legato, eloquent, bright,” he tells the strings. “But make sure the sound is switched on. It lacks a little ardour. It’s all rather surface. the sound needs more weight.” He reaches a passage where the violins and violas divide desk-by-desk. “We need very fast, very narrow vibrato on each note. Really brilliant. What you just did? That was fine, but it sounded just ordinary.” Later he looks for the sweet spot of clarity and charm. “Can it be marcato and still melodious?” he asks. “Can it be legato and still have clean definition on the lines?” He turns to the violins: “go for a really high-risk top note. A bit of scratch and strain in the sound will do no harm at all.”
During the break I ask whether the lushness and brightness so audible in the first of his Copland discs for Chandos influence the sound he is going for in the Second Symphony. “Sure, a little,” Wilson replies. “Probably most of all in the slow movement. Though I don’t think of it as a luscious sound so much as a very clean sound. The way he scores with gaps in between high notes, low notes and middle notes… We’ve been talking a lot about gaps. So much of his rhythmic trickery comes where you don’t play. He’s brilliant at conjuring exciting rhythms with gaps.”
It is fascinating listening to Wilson work on thorny mid-century symphonic repertoire while bearing in mind his bent for MGM heritage. Does he hear any parallels himself? Does the style he’s developed with the John Wilson Orchestra filter into the work he’s doing here? “Well, Copland was born in 1900 and raised in Brooklyn. There’s no chance he could have not absorbed influences from Harlem, from Gershwin. It’s all there in the music. Put it this way: if I’m conducting a Fred Astaire dance routine, those rhythm have to be executed with great style. The string playing has to be faultless, delivered with real ardour and perfection. The brass playing has to have a certain swagger. It has to be cleanly articulated with a ton of accents. And none of those characteristics would do any harm in Rodeo—they wouldn’t do much harm in The Rite of Spring, either. Basically we’re talking here about playing with commitment.”
And what about the Americanness of the sound, I ask. Regardless of whether each Copland score has gathered its own performance tradition, does Wilson try to capture attributes of a quintessentially American orchestral sound? “Possibly,” he replies. “Copland’s ballet scores are best known in the New York Philharmonic versions conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The thing that stands out to me there is the trumpet sound: totally ballsy—that supreme confidence of all the New York brass playing right down the line, so super-confident and spirited but refined, too, not just a load of machismo. There’s a certain vigour to those Wild West pieces, a certain swagger. Which is not the first adjective you’d use to describe British brass playing. Here we specialise more in gentleman brass playing: warm, neat, very accurate.”
The aim, he stresses, is not to try to imitate that vintage American sound, “but there are stylistic parameters that we have to try to fulfil. It would be a mistake to play these pieces in a completely British way—we have to just go for it. And actually, Copland doesn’t give us much choice. He marks down very clearly what he wants, which means that with a lot of this music we’re leaving the arena of personal taste and entering into being either right or wrong. With the symphonies, if we play 90 percent of what’s on the page then most of the work is done for us. Then we get the luxury of refining the sound, taking the music to places it has never gone before.”
Meanwhile Wilson is also taking his own audiences—the following he has built via his John Wilson Orchestra—to places they have never gone before. I suggest that the gentler start to the Copland series might have helped to lure in some listeners and he laughs. “Well, there is a responsibility there,” he says. “People are paying money so it is really important not to betray their trust and go too far. In general I hope I can programme in a way that takes the audience places they’ll enjoy when they’ll get there. The language of a Judy Garland song is exactly the same as the language of a Rachmaninov symphony, so I feel great about making that leap. Navigating from MGM musicals to Korngold film scores to Copland’s marvellously thrilling Organ Symphony? Sure, that is a nice little trip! And if we play with enough conviction, if we are totally convinced ourselves, then I am sure that people are happy to come with us.” ~Kate Molleson
John: I think with Light Music generally one of its primary requirements is to ‘land in the listener’s lap’. It has to have a direct route to the listener’s emotions. You mention the Haydn Wood London Landmark Suite… In the 1930s from about 1933 onward, with Eric Coates’s London Suite, there was a sudden vogue for London—it was an illusory London, but it was very useful for these composers who wanted to express these sort of picture-postcard scenarios in music… Eric Coates did that very effectively with his London Suite in 1933. Now, why did people suddenly start copying Coates? It’s because it was enormously successful… It sold 400,000 copies of the 78 [record] and suddenly of course dollar signs started flashing in front of the publishers’ eyes.
And these three that we’re going to hear tonight are incredibly different individually. What should the listeners be expecting to hear?
John: The tunes are good. Particularly the last movement, “The Horse Guards—Whitehall” which was used as a signature tune for a long-running radio show [Down Your Way, 1946-92]… That’s obviously got a jaunty, horsey aspect to it… The first, “Nelson’s Column”, has a sort of quality nautical aspect to it… And the middle movement, “Tower Hill”, has a sort of thread of tragedy running through it. It’s never profoundly tragic, it’s all a kind of…as I keep saying earlier, a kind of picture postcard, a sort of 1930s-1940s sort of illusory version of what these places represent.
What are the sort of challenges you come across as a conductor when conducted and preparing music like this?
John: You know, there are a time when there was no division between light music and serious music. But with the advent of broadcasting and seaside orchestras there was a new market for composers who specialized in that field… And the challenge as a conductor is that you have to get off the page the immediacy of the music, the directness of the melodies and the rhythms, so I think on common levels of snap, articulation, fervor, all those things to bring these pieces to life… It’s, I think, from a player’s point of view, it’s often more than you might actually think. Part of the secret of this music’s success is that it never outstays its welcome. Which means as a player you have very little time to establish yourself. You’ve got to be in the zone and you’ve got to kind of deliver immediately. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing this stuff here with this orchestra for a lo’ of years, so they’re quite familiar with not only the style but what it is I like, so it’s all very happy music making.
Ed Lyon tenor, Benjamin Appl baritone, and Susanne Bernhard soprano are the soloists. The Choir of Hanover and the Liverpool Cathedral Choir round out the voices. Orchestra is the NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze is the conductor. 2018. Above: War Requiem, written in 1962 by Benjamin Britten.
I sang in the chorus of War Requiem around the time you were going on 1. It was the last concert of the Minnesota Orchestra’s ’72-73 season in Minneapolis; guest conductor was Kurt Adler of the Metropolitan Opera. (Don’t remember the soloists.) It was the greatest musical experience of my life. I know the Decca recording is out there somewhere, but the broadcast above from Radio Hanover is the closest I’ve found to the feeling I got being in the middle of all that gorgeous sound…
Which brings me to address yet another one of those sundry feelings I have about you, and have had about you, lo these several years: besides tenderness, gratitude, annoyance, and raging lust, just a trace of envy that you ascend to such an exquisite sonic plane so often…
But the envy goes when you bring it on home to us, which you always do. And then I’m filled with the pure joy of loving you.
Price’s infatuation intensified, regarding Coral as “the Great Barrier Reef—beautiful, exotic and dangerous. I was like a bird dog!”
“I remember he electrocuted me on my birthday,” Browne recalled when she performed her death scene with Price. Ironically her acting isn’t very good in this scene because she doesn’t look even remotely terrified of her murderer. Instead, she prefers gazing into his eyes instead of screaming in fear.
After the day’s filming, Price once again approached Diana Rigg for advice. “I said to Diana, ‘I understand it’s Ms Browne’s birthday. What could I get her?’ And Diana said, ‘Well, you know what she wants. You!”
And from then on,” added Rigg, “they never looked back. I think they fell into bed and I think it was a wildly sexual relationship. Incredibly sexual. I remember Coral saying that they worked out their combined ages were 120-something, and when you saw these absolutely shagged out people on the set, it was really quite funny. And that was the start of it.”
Before we get to what I think will be a nice and fair assessment of John Wilson’s 2020 recording, a word to some people.
I have always been aware of the tacit agreement that exists between my screen persona Simona Wing and her fans, but let me now take this apt opportunity to state my position clearly: You all have my blessing to do whatever you want with me in your fantasies.
Because whatever you want to do with me in your fantasies is nothing compared to what I want to do withJohn Wilsonin mine. So, go for it.
Now on to Korngold.
I didn’t realize this was still a thing in the music world, but apparently opinions continue to be strongly divided as to whether Erich Wolfgang Korngold—a true heir, by the way, to The Great Mittel European Romantic Tradition—deserves inclusion in the canon some snooty farts call the Classic Repertoire. You know, the one that has Bach and Beethoven and all those other cats. It’s no secret that when you mention the name Korngold, the average music lover’s first thought is of upmarket movie soundtracks (Anthony Adverse—The Adventures of Robin Hood—The Sea Hawk—Captain Blood) and likely never gets around to the fact that Korngold wrote, among other things, the most luscious symbolist opera of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt, in 1920, and a hell of a gorgeous violin concerto 25 years later:
So it seems like every generation there has to be one nut who comes along and says, Let’s run Korngold past the hoi-polloi again and see if he’ll fly—and if you think I’m talking about you, John Wilson, you’ve got a swelled head. Because the nut I’m talking about is the nut in the CIA. The anonymous nut who got The Company to fund an enterprise back in the early 70s called “The Golden Age of Hollywood Music” and hence to elevate Korngold to the status of Hollywood Royalty—but through his film scores and his film scores only.
But that story later.
We’re here right now not just to size up a new Korngold recording, but to honor the decades-long musical relationship of Andrew Haveron, violinist, former Leader of The John Wilson Orchestra, current Leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and conductor John Wilson, whose career in orchestra building started at the age of 22 and hasn’t stopped since.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, their latest Chandos release, was going to get my attention with or without the Winsome Lad of Low Fell anyway, as I’m a sucker for this particular style and era of music. But I was glad to learn about their actual friendship as well; for me it explains why the perfect communication that’s so evident here between Haveron and my John (and through him, to the estimable RTE Orchestra) has some of the magic of Barenboim+du Pré, back in the brief days when those two were cooking hot with Elgar.
This is soloist Haveron’s star turn: a warm, fresh, intimate—revelatory even—rendition of a piece that, let’s face it, is kind of like the “Nessun Dorma” of violin concertos. But this is John’s success too. So much of my bonny’s gift for conducting Korngold, as we know, has to do with his insistence on a technique his PR people call “shimmer” but is actually wrist vibrato on strings, a technique in fingering I learned about and taught myself when I was 14 because I liked the sound it made, although when the orchestra teacher put it down for sounding cheap and sloppy I quit it.
But I know the sound of shimmer and you do too. The John Wilson Orchestra practically patented it. John himself still calls for it whenever he conducts Tchaikovsky. It’s in all the high-toned movies of the 1930s (examples above). It’s also in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic film musical Love Me Tonight (complete film here) courtesy of Paramount’s musical director Nat Finston, who understood what he was talking about when, in a certain musical scene, he said he wanted “crying violins”. I could tell what he was talking about when he told me this story 46 years later.