My beloved John Wilson returns to the Royal College of Music to conduct the RCM Symphony Orchestra in Rachmaninov’s orchestral work in three movements. The last major orchestra composition completed by Rachmaninov, the suite is based around motifs found in Russian ecclesiastical music.
Take David Lean’s 1945 tale of forbidden love, Brief Encounter. The couple meet in the tearoom of a railway station, where she is waiting for the steam train home after a day’s shopping. A speck of coal dirt gets caught in her eye and, without a word of introduction, the gallant local doctor steps forward and removes it. The following eighty minutes of this beautifully written movie depict their deepening love and guilt each feels about it. …
As Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto comes and goes in the background, their affair unfolds, measured out in cups of tea in the waiting room of Milford station. … Being English, Celia Johnson feels no animosity towards her husband, whom she considers “kindly and unemotional”. Trevor Howard, equally trapped in a dry marriage, also expresses no hostility towards his wife and children. But the two of them are in the force of a passion they can hardly control. “We must be sensible,” is the constant refrain. “If we control ourselves, there’s still time.” In the end, despite all the protestations of undying devotion, the romance remains unconsummated…
What does this most popular of English films tell us about the English?
The 19th episode of the 8th season of the long-running Korean-wartime sitcom M*A*S*H entitled “Morale Victory” (clip available on my YT channel) is mostly pretty silly—but! Get through all the A-story shenanigans and there’s a surprisingly tight and moving B-story about a wounded soldier/concert pianist which culminates in a 3 1/2 minute scene that makes me cry every time I watch it. David Ogden Stiers (Juilliard, ’72) plays Dr Winchester and James Stephens plays his patient.
Above: Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major (1938) performed by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson, with piano solo by Nikola Avramovic. Plus watch the clip on my YT channel here.
(Winchester wheels David into the squalid hut that is the officers+enlisted club)
David: What are we doing here, doctor? I don’t want a drink.
Winchester: Good. Because you’re not gonna get one.
(Wheels him close to the piano)
David: What the hell is this all about?
Winchester: Please, David. (from manila envelope takes out sheet music) I’m sure you’ve heard of these, eh?
David: (glances at them) Pieces for the left hand. Of course I’ve heard of them. What are you suggesting now? That I make a career out of a few freak pieces written for one hand?
Winchester: Not at all. I won’t make any pretense about your physical ability to play concerts. That’s not my point. Are you familiar with the story behind the Ravel?
David: No, and I don’t really—
Winchester: It was written for an Austrian concert pianist named Paul Wittgenstein. He lost his arm during the First World War. He embarked on a long search to commission piano works for the left hand alone. Composer after composer turned him down. But he refused to give up. Finally, he found Ravel who, like him, was willing to accept this great challenge.
(Beat; David considers this)
Winchester: Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.
David: Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift. I HAD a gift! And I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?
Winchester: Wrong! Because the gift does not lie in your hands! I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play. (sighs) But I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live! Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world, through the baton, the classroom, the pen. (points to sheet music) As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.
(Winchester sees a spark of interest in David and moves him closer to the keyboard. With a look of determination, David begins to play the Ravel. Winchester’s face registers intense emotions, including joy)
This 2010 clip was uploaded to YT as a fundraiser in 2020 for Concordia, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting struggling young musicians. My beloved John Wilson was one of those struggling young musicians, and now as guest conductor he leads Concordia Foundation Artists here in a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music from the Foundation’s 15th Anniversary Concert, held at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 22nd November 2010, with a reading of the text by Founder and Artistic Director, Gillian Humphreys OBE. This is the piece that made Rachmaninoff weep.
Recorded at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, 2 July 2021. Found the donation window, incidentally. Back in January, 2020 after we heard John conducting them in Tchaikowsky I said to Mister Grumble, ‘That was as good as any small-city orchestra in the US. I’d’ve paid cash money for this,’ and darned if the RAM didn’t just make my life a little easier. Here it is.
CANCELLED: During Easter Week, the holiest week of the year for observing Catholics, John in Santiago, Chile conducting a me-tic-ulously chosen student orchestra, culminating in a concert on Easter Sunday consisting of the always-favorite Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3.
RECORDED: Lastly, re “Meditation” above, that short symphonic intermezzo between the scenes in Act 2 in the opera Thaïs (1893) by Jules Massenet, which my beloved John conducts on his February 2020 album from Chandos (10th cut) and in which Andrew Haveron performs his violin solo like an angel…
Gazing now at John with love and longing and taking this to a private place. Everybody, go away.
Gimadieva made her UK debut at the Proms with John and the John Wilson Orchestra in their program Hollywood Rhapsody, which included pieces by my favorite screen composer Bernard Herrmann. I’ve been a fairly knowledgeable fan of Herrmann since my teen years, but somehow I never got around to hearing the entire aria until—yes! yes! are you getting bored hearing this again?—I fell in love totally and completely with English conductor John Wilson and craved to hear all the music that he is part of. To my delight, he backed this brilliant singer well.
Above my bonny John making nicey-nice with a soprano for once: “O cruel!” (Salammbo’s aria) from the film Citizen Kane. Herrmann planned to write an entire opera based on this scandalous Flaubert novel but, daunted by the task, as Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff before him, never got around to it.
And for good measure, here’s Gimadieva doing Donizetti’s “O luce di quest anima” with The Hallé the way I’d like to have sounded in my last trimester jury at music school.
My bonny John at 7:55: “The music is of such importance it actually unlocks some of the questions as to what people are meant to be doing and thinking on stage. I’ve done West Side Story a lo’, I’ve done a few complete productions of it and whenever you are unsure of how to turn something dramatically you look in the score and the subito or the hairpin will actually give you the direction of what’s happening on the stage in every bar.”
John honey, there are these things musicals have called books…
And at 5:45: “He was writing these musicals to make some money… Because, you know, he had a wife and she wanted to live in a certain amount of style and he wanted, uh, some kind of security and…between 1943 with Oklahoma and 1965, 68, you have a fifteen-year period [sic] when there was greaaat money to be made on the Broadway stage, and he made no secret about it, you know… He wrote Wonderful Town in three weeks because he wanted to cash in…”
I love watching how Lockhart, official Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, scrupulously keeps in sync with not just his orchestra but with his soloist. It’s also a delight to watch at the beginning of the clip Lisitsa curtsying almost shyly to leader Cynthia Fleming.
Valentina Lisitsa, who started out as a YouTube sensation 12 years ago and is now counted as one of the foremost keyboard interpreters of the Eastern European Romantics, gives an intensely satisfying performance here of Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto“. The concerto was written for the movies—for, specifically, the 1941 movie Dangerous Moonlight, in which Polish concert pianist Anton Walbrook becomes a fighter pilot for the RAF, falls in love, gets amnesia, and composes some music. The movie, although a success from a propaganda viewpoint, was considered a potboiler by critics, and even the astute Anthony Burgess, who was an army sergeant and nascent composer himself at the time, looked down on the “Warsaw Concerto” as a cheap imitation of Rachmaninoff. Intellectual snobs have derided the piece, but it’s lingered in the memory for lo these many years, and is only now taking its permanent place in the Classic Repertoire.
For that we have to thank composer/film music restorer Philip Lane. It was to Lane that the musical estate of Richard Addinsell was entrusted and, like composer/orchestrator William David Brohn for Prokoviev’s Alexander Nevsky (Abbado with the LSO + full score here on YT) and my beloved John Wilson, Lane took on the task of reconstructing by ear written scores for film music whose manuscripts had been destroyed through carelessness or war. (Some suggest that the “Warsaw Concerto” was entirely the work of Addinsell’s orchestrator, Roy Douglas, who died in 2015 at the age of 107.) Addinsell’s—or Douglas’s—”Warsaw Concerto” was one of them. As Lane writes:
“The process of reconstruction does not get easier, but some films are more difficult than others. The biggest enemy is the combination of dialogue and sound effects over the music, and occasionally there are seconds of complete inaudibility when guesswork has to replace authenticity. The greater the composer, the more difficult the work, on the whole, since the melodic and harmonic language tends to be more adventurous. In the case of recent scores there are usually soundtrack CDs devoid of extraneous sounds to work from, but despite the change in status of film music, present day composers still mislay their scores. I have reconstructed music by Jerry Goldsmith, Randy Edelman and James Horner in the last year alone. If the composers are still alive I obviously encourage them to do the reconstruction themselves. So far, they have declined for various reasons.”
A very nifty, lively, jazzy modernist piece written by Constant Lambert (The Who manager Kit Lambert’s dad) in 1927. Australian virtuoso Eileen Joyce, who famously played the heart-wrenching Rachmaninoff in the film Brief Encounter (entire film here), is at the piano here. County Antrim-born Jean Allister, contralto soloist, joins her with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Chorus. At the podium is Sir Malcolm Sargent.
Composer-novelist Anthony Burgess, in his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (Burgess’s original name was John Wilson; his middle family name was Burgess and his confirmation name was Anthony) wrote,“Lambert, who admired Duke Ellington and proclaimed his harmonic roots in Frederick Delius (who in his turn had taken them from Debussy), was a fearless reconciler of what the academies and Tin Pan Alley alike presumed to be eternally opposed. I was present at that first performance, and so was my father. And, in 1972, on a plane from New York to Toronto, I found myself sitting next to Duke Ellington, who spoke almost with tears of the stature of Lambert, admitted that he had learned much from both Delius and Debussy, and expressed scorn for the old musical division, which had been almost as vicious as a colour bar. He had lived to see it dissolve and jazz become a legitimate item in the academic curricula.” [More Burgess on Lambert here.]
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 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 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…