But like I said earlier, I was already familiar with the fact that Mamoulian had directed Carousel and Oklahoma! on Broadway. So when he finally started to chat me up more familiarly, after a few weeks of my just coming in every weekday morning and answering his phone, opening his mail—unpaid bills, media people from all over wanting interviews, a few lines from old friends like Armina Marshall…Paul Horgan…Pamela Mason…Ray Bradbury—balancing his checkbook, reassuring Zayde on the intercom over and over that Henry their handyman hadn’t gone home yet etc etc, and basically fooling around during the many dull spots in the day (which is how I ended up playing the Waltz from Carousel to myself on the actual legendary Richard Rodgers piano), it was easy to follow The Old Man’s train of thought because I already knew a lot about the original production of Oklahoma!
“You know, Agnes…” he started right off the bat one day, and we both immediately understood who he was referring to: Agnes De Mille, the choreographer for the original 1943 production.
I sat up attentively, pen in hand, ready to take dictation. My main duty for Mamoulian was supposed to have been as amanuensis for his memoirs, after all. At least that’s what the temp agency had told me. Although they didn’t say amanuensis.
“No, put your pen down and listen!” he ordered. He was, in the weeks and months to come, going to say that a lot.
It was a late morning about six weeks into my work assignment and The Old Man hadn’t arisen yet, so there I was in the salon with nothing to do except quietly wait for his appearance and his orders for the day (which letters to answer, which bills to pay, which people to call, etc) before getting down to the primary purpose of my being there, which was, in the agency’s words, “to assist Mr Mamoulian in the writing of his memoirs”. None of that memoir writing actually did transpire in the nearly nine months I was with him, other things did, but let’s not jump ahead. Unsupervised, I was forbidden to handle/read books from his voluminous library, but you know what? He never expressly told me not to play the piano, that big black shiny intriguing baby grand in the middle of the room, and I couldn’t resist. Could you?
There wasn’t a sound coming from any part of the house, although I could faintly hear Henry the daily handyman moving his wheelbarrow out in the yard. I’d had enough of examining in painstaking detail the boring watercolors and Russian icons on the wall. I sat down on the bench.
Sense memory kicking in… At that point it was the closest I had gotten to this humongous piece of furniture. I remember the smooth feel of the wood as I ran my fingers on it, gently lifting up the fall board to get to the keys. The piano was a Steinway. That is, I remember it as a Steinway, because I don’t remember it not being a Steinway. I put the fingers of my right hand down in place and began, ever so softly, to tap out the first tune that came into my mind, which happened to be the waltz from Carousel. Three, four bars in I thought I heard a rustle from the back of the house and stopped cold, put the fall board down and stood up.
This was the first time my eye was caught by something on the right side of the music rack, some sort of writing actually carved into the wood of the music shelf that lay flat in the cabinet of the piano. It was in cursive—and it was a name:
It still gives me goosebumps to remember I actually did that. When The Old Man finally did get up an hour later, I was sitting back at my desk in his alcove-cum-office, pretending to read one of the cheap Hollywood magazines I brought to pass the time, although my mind was still on the bars I’d played and where the bars were going musically, and I think I was humming. I must’ve been humming. Because as he came into the alcove I heard Mamoulian exclaim, “Hey, that’s from Carousel.”
I looked up. Caught! I was about to apologize when he spoke again, this time it seemed almost wistfully. “You know, I directed that.”
I said softly, as if it were an apology, “I know.”
At that moment our relationship started to take a different turn.
From 4barsrest.com, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists: The critically acclaimed big band and orchestral conductor (that’s my lad!) has accepted the role of Honorary President of the Yorkshire band Black Dyke. Chairman of the Board of Black Dyke Band Trustees, Trevor Caffull stated, “We are delighted that John Wilson has agreed to be our Honorary President and very excited with some of the initial thoughts shared regarding potential collaborations. In his early life, John was steeped in brass band culture. He has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm for the genre and we are very optimistic that this will evolve into a mutually rewarding association.”
About Fanfares: I fell in love with John the spring of 2018. The summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands at the Royal Albert; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.
So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle-Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, for example this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*
It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.
Which brings us back to Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.
The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era. If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.
John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here, as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and also Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2”, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.
Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last four years.
*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.
John mi vida— It may be likely that we’ll actually meet up sometime or another, since I give not only to the Academy but to the College as well (although I’m thinking of becoming a Friend of the College this year because one, Pru and Emma at the main office have been very kind, and two, I’d like to visit the RCM’s brand-new museum), and so perhaps my few dollars might wangle me an invitation to one of those “Meet the Fellows” wine-and-cheese thingies you as a Fellow are encouraged to attend. If that happens, how about coming over and saying hi to me? I won’t bite. I forgave you for Oklahoma! a while ago.
From December, 2018. John Wilson, fire of my loins: You are a true musician, you command the finest magical mechanism Western Civilization has ever invented: the symphony orchestra, and you do this for a living. All life is asking you to do is to groove on it, and the fact that I’ll be continuing to make love to you long distance indefinitely.
Now, there are far more interesting exercises in the world of Schenkerian analysis (kidding, kidding!) than one huffy American ex-porn actress taking the piss out of a popular middle-ranking, BBC-scripted, English conductor… If it weren’t for the fact that ex-porn actress happens to have fallen in love with aforementioned Conductor and longs for him regularly. Therefore she takes Conductor’s pronouncements a little more seriously, a little more discerningly than she would, say, the pronouncements of her own musical compatriots—Alsop, Tilson Thomas, Mauceri etc… Additionally, Conductor reveals in his public statements more about himself than I think he’d prefer, John.
So as much as I’d enjoy ragging you for the impudent (and ultimately self-revealing) remarks you made about Mrs Bernstein and Mrs Coates, I really should finally get down to the one single thing (aside, of course, from your tearass tempi, your overuse of percussion, your rushing of singers, your astonishing lack of color in certain critical pieces) that has bugged me since the day I first encountered it: your juvenile dismissal of my old boss, film/stage director Rouben Mamoulian, and his creative contribution to the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! Now, I know you were only riffing off info you got from some book or Andre Previn, who likely socialized with The Old Man when they were both at MGM. But, as I mentioned in an old posting, of all his stage and screen work The Old Man liked to talk about, the one he liked to talk about the most was Oklahoma! And I turned out to be his perfect audience, because early on I’d confessed to him that I was a big Rodgers & Hammerstein fan. (Filipinos are big Rodgers & Hammerstein fans, for obvious reasons.)
But before I get to the point about Oklahoma! I have to tell you a side—though relevant—story about Mamoulian and Eugene O’Neill.
Rouben Mamoulian and John Wilson at around the same age (40), 80 years apart.
MAMOULIAN’S AND MY EUGENE O’NEILL STORY
This is the second story Mamoulian ever told me back in 1978 when he was 81 and I was 23, which he told me in a way that was flattering as hell, which was he didn’t ask if I knew who Eugene O’Neill was, although I did say “Wow” at the mention of the name, so he might have sized up my interest that way, and just went right into the story.
Seems that when he was living an emigre’s life in New York, trying to make a go of it in stage work, he scored his greatest career triumph to date: The Theater Guild wanted him to direct a play by Eugene O’Neill. Now, O’Neill had already won the Pulitzer and he’d already had several successes, not to mention his other new play, Strange Interlude, was already generating a lot of pre-opening night buzz, so we’re talking King of 1928 Broadway here. O’Neill agrees to meet Mamoulian in his hotel room (that is to say, O’Neill’s hotel room. It seems like the best stories about O’Neill take place in hotel rooms) to talk over any directorial concerns O’Neill, the playwright, might have, and if he has any advice to give this youngster concerning his play.
“Actually, Mr O’Neill,” says Mamoulian, trying to sound like himself at thirty, you know, the brash but confident whiz-kid, “I know exactly how to fix your play.”
“You will change not a word. Not a word!” says O’Neill. And here The Old Man doesn’t bother to actually imitate O’Neill, although in time I heard him do some good impressions of other people, mostly actors.
“Look here, Mr O’Neill,” says young Mamoulian, opening the bound script of Marco Millions that he brought with him. “I can show you exactly where the speeches slow the play down, and where we can achieve the same ends using action. Here—” And here The Old Man imitates taking a blue pencil and gleefully slashing a diagonal line across a rejected page like editors do— “—and here—” He goes on to recreate his turning the pages of the script one at a time— “and here—here—here—” with a slash! slash! slash! And all the time I’m thinking with a kind of growing horror: You CUT Eugene O’Neill!!!?
“But in the end,” Mamoulian assures me, “he saw that I was right, and we got along splendidly.”
But that’s not the end of the story. About a year after Mamoulian and I go our separate ways, I get a chance to attend opening night of Marco Millions at Berkeley Stage Company up in the Bay Area, as the plus-one of some guy I was seeing. This was around the time BSC was on its “classics” kick, making it clear in news and ads and publicity sheets that this wasn’t just any old O’Neill revival, this was an extra-special homage to the master playwright of our great theatrical heritage. Scenes cut from the 1928 production had been restored in order that this fruit of O’Neill’s genius be presented intact and full; Mamoulian’s name was hardly mentioned.
Well, I watch this big lumbering thing, right through the parts that dragged on and on with their interminable speeches about the redistribution of wealth and so on, and I’m thinking, this must be where he cut, here— Then here— And here— And almost like he’s whispering in my ear “See? See?” I realize that The Old Man was right to make the cuts, and that Marco Millions probably could have been a fine piece of theater if they’d stuck to the original opening night version.
But I swear, it was not on my mind to argue this during lobby talk after the curtain. The big thing on my mind was that I had the perfect story to share at this particular time, in this particular space, and yeah, I wanted to share it. I was with the guy who brought me, a cokehead freelance lighting designer who was always hitting up people for jobs. Together we went up to the artistic directors, a married couple, my date immediately starting in with the whole buttering up thing, you know, You look fabulous what have you been doing to yourself, etc etc etc.
I break in with something like, “You know, I have a great story about this play I got straight from (and here I made sure to stress the second syllable like he preferred) Rouben Mamoulian and how he worked with—”
And here the guy, my date, takes me aside and mutters as urgently but tenderly as is possible for him, “Sweetheart, would you please shut up while I’m talking business.”
Reader, I did.
So everyone, this is the first time—the very first time—in thirty-eight years I’m telling this story.
And you, Tom Stocker. Just for that, I regret having given you the most explosive blowjob of your life, the one that made you howl like a wolf.
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:
Happy 2021, my darling Local Low Fell Lad Made Good. I just tried getting on your management’s website for you (johnwilsonconductordotcom) to check for your January gigs when I was sent to the sinister Your connection is not private page, which perturbs me a bit as it sounds like the server might’ve been hacked.
[Sorry, have to go be with Mister Grumble for a while. More later, promise.]
[2 Jan 2021 14:20] Later. I’m back, dear. Glad to see that fixed, for now. Mister Grumble and I had a date to listen to what I just found on YT: the 1978 NYE Grateful Dead concert from The Closing of Winterland—you know, the one where [legendary band manager] Bill Graham glides down to the stage on a giant lit joint (as I described it to my blind angel which he recognized at once)—and really, it was a great night, or so the Mister tells me. The Mister is the one who turned me on to The Dead, back at our old commune in San Francisco.
[making dinner now, Bavarian-style pork chops with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes; I’ll come back to wrap this up as soon as I can, promise]
[6 Jan 2021 14:21] Okay, now that I’ve served all your wonderful fans around the world, let me have my say.
The BBC Proms 2017 semi-staged production of Oklahoma! pissed off 3 people I care about even though one of them is dead: Mister Grumble, a proud Oklahoman, who hated to see this nuanced Sooner tale turn into some weird English panto; original 1943 director Rouben Mamoulian, who even though dead howled in his grave at your dismissive use of his name in promos, oh, and for perpetuating a “mistruth” about him and his artistic relationship with Agnes de Mille; and me for two things: one, your use of the Robert Russell Bennett orchestration (which was never meant to play to a room the size of the Albert) instead of the film orchestration (by Bennett+Courage+Sendry+Deutsch) which, if I remember rightly, you actually used in your 2010 show for the last number, “Oklahoma!”, and it was gorgeous; and two—Marcus Brigstocke as Ali Hakim!!!??? Who the hell at the BBC was responsible for thatwhitewashing? And why didn’t the UK press call the Beeb on it? (I mean, if you’re all going to be hoity-toity over Maria in West Side Story…) Now, I can lay the former at your door but maybe not the latter, as the Beeb seems to have gone off its rocker on its own… But c’mon.
But let that pass. What really impresses me about my lust for you is that it started me on the road to thinking about The Old Man again. And actually, really, I should thank you for that. Mamoulian ought to be remembered—not for being a cranky old has-been, but for having directed some classic pictures and classic stage musicals like, you know, Oklahoma! I knew him. Our minds matched. That there was some weird man-woman friction going on between us toward the end makes no difference. It fries me how little regard he gets nowadays, even in the film buff world. So, ultimately, there’s no rancor on my part toward you re Mister M. (As a matter of fact, I think I’ll work out all my mental stuff about Mamoulian in a memoir one of these days.)
But now my love, here’s the last item and I hope I can finish it before I have to go in to make dinner.
Okay. Here’s the connection between you and Mamoulian, and it has nothing to do with you as a musician. It has to do with that damn full dress of yours, which has aroused such a surprising fetish in me I’m exploring it in a special place.
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
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 above) 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…
Disappointing to hear that John won’t be doing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this month. So, to cheer everybody up, here’s the full 2-hour program of my John and The John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms, 2013. That’s Jane Monheit, John, and Matt Ford below.
SONG MEDLEY (YT):
– “An Affair to Remember” (from the 1957 film; 20th Century Fox) / Harry Warren, Leo McCarey (the film’s director), Harold Damson
– “Something’s Gotta Give” (from Daddy Long Legs; 20th Century Fox, 1955) / Johnny Mercer
– “Young at Heart” (from the 1955 film; Warner Bros) / Johnny Richards, Carolyn Leigh
– “It’s Magic” (from Romance On the High Seas; Warner Bros, 1948) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn
– “The Tender Trap” (from the 1955 film; MGM) / Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn
– “My Foolish Heart” (from the 1949 film; Samuel Goldwyn/RKO) / Ned Washington, Victor Young
– “Three Coins in the Fountain” (from the 1954 film; 20th Century Fox) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn
– “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (from the 1955 film; 20th Century Fox) / Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster
– “That’s Amore” (from The Caddy; Paramount, 1953) / Harry Warren, Jack Brooks
– “Que Sera, Sera” (from The Man Who Knew Too Much; Paramount, 1956 / Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
– “All the Way” (from The Joker is Wild, 1957; Paramount) / Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn
A Place In the Sun (suite from the 1951 film; Paramount) / Franz Waxman
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 the 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 nonetheless 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. Mister Grumble even 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 quite get the Vivien Leigh delivery so that bit just died.
But you know, I think that’s the crux of the matter, my beloved 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.”
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