Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, I don’t care whether some guy at Warners made you up because he had to optimize the assets in his department, you’re real enough to me. And it doesn’t matter a damn bit how you got the gig. What matters is you did the work.
“The Trolley Song” from Meet Me In St Louis (MGM, 1944) orchestrated by Conrad Salinger reconstructed by John Wilson played by The John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson from the album That’s Entertainment! A Celebration of MGM Musicals Kim Criswell, vocalist Warner Classics, 2012
Co-composer Blane once said that he’d been glancing at a picture book he’d found at the Beverly Hills Public Library, landed on a page about early streetcars captioned “Clang, Clang, Clang, Went the Trolley,” and bang was off to the races. The song’s unusual structure, which Martin based on 19th century tunes, was a showcase for Garland’s strong voice. “The Trolley Song” was nominated for a 1944 Academy Award for Best Original Song.
Orchestrator for this song—as well as the entire MGM musical Meet Me in St Louis—was Conrad Salinger. “He had a very individual, sophisticated sense of harmony,” said our John in a 2013 interview. “It was those very subtle and exclusive touches that he gave to those numbers that set him apart… Little touches of instrumentation, like alto flutes and French horns, that gave those pictures a sound world all their own. His specialty was that high-class production number, the theatrical presentation of a popular song, or a balletic development of a number. In the hands of Salinger, you could be listening to Debussy or Ravel. He’s never going to be a household name, but that doesn’t diminish his stature.”
I was a fan of Korngold ever since I played violin in The Snowman in the orchestra in junior high (reduced score of course; here’s the full score of the Entr’acte), then as a solfeggist at ASCAP in NY around the time RCA was coming out with Charles Gerhardt‘s definitive recordings of Captain Blood, The Sea Hawk, Robin Hood, etc. Then years later in San Francisco I inherited a friend’s collection of Andre Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra, which included Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp.
Maybe it was from associating the Previn recording with my friend’s death, but I grew to detest the sound of late Korngold. He began to sound false to me—the result, I reasoned, of all those corrupting years in Hollywood. And Previn was his perfect interpreter, of course, two Hollywood minds as one, you might say. Doesn’t, in fact, that sound like a medley of The Ten Best TV Cop Show Themes and Their Underscorings? And then the ringer in the Adagio: The Private Life of Elizabeth and Essex, so recognizable from the movie.
Bette Davis portrays Queen Elizabeth, Errol Flynn her faithful but ambitious lover in this sumptuous costume drama. In Technicolor for the Eyes. Warner Bros, 1939.
See, Hollywood lets go of no one.
And so I was content to continue in this apprehension, until Chandos came out last week with a new recording of Korngold’s symphony, played by the newly re-formed Sinfonia of London and conducted by—wait for it—John Wilson. By now, I think I’ve made my feelings clear about John just a little. Whenever he gets really irritating though there’s one thing that I do: I make myself remember the times my bonny lad has absolutely astonished me. The first time was fourteen, fifteen years ago in a screening room in LA when the band from nowhere just ripped into that hack hit “Beyond the Sea” and made it truly soar. The second time was a few years later when I heard the sound, THE EXACT SOUND!!!, of that ultra-Judy number from Meet Me In St Louis, “The Trolley Song”, only bigger, more vibrant, more—present.
This is the third time. Who would have thought that a smaller, tighter orchestra, conducted by someone coming in without preconceptions but with a determination to follow through with the composer’s intent, could make a composition sound like an entirely different composition? John said somewhere once that he endeavors to give each musical piece he “takes on board” its correct coloring (which I might believe if he weren’t so maddeningly inconsistent) but here he does the remarkable: Where Previn colors all over the place, trying to make the music into something it’s not, John colors very little. Rather it sounds like, as I say, he actually worked out the composer’s intent to carry him through, and it’s pretty clear that Korngold meant for Symphony in F-sharp to take its rightful place in the Great Central European Repertoire, with its traditional wealth of tonal expressiveness.
So why oh why do some people insist this piece is movie trash? Is it because of that handful of notes from E+E? I swear to God I didn’t hear any other filmic callbacks, and I’m pretty good at catching tunes. But so what if there were? Korngold, unlike the majority of movie composers, retained legal possession of his studio work, which gave him the freedom to rework any of his past themes and phrases as he saw fit. He certainly wasn’t thinking of the flicks once he returned to Europe. Maybe his attachment to these notes was purely sentimental. We’ll never know. It’s a mystery, and I choose to believe that John, consummate musician, respects that mystery.
Anyway my love, as you’ve done with so many other composers, thanks for leading me back to Erich Korngold. It’s a wonderful recording, a keeper, now the standard against which I’m judging every Korngold Symphony in F-sharp out there (and there are a lot of them, not just Previn’s, as you know), and I would’ve bought it even if I weren’t crazy in love with you.
I’m still finding it mighty strange that John was born on the same day as my father’s final birthday, in 1972—on the 25th of May, which would make them both Geminis—but somehow it starts to make sense: There’s John of the BBC and Eric Coates and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the tra-la-boomy-boom that makes up English music; and then there’s John of the big-shouldered swaggering sweating bombastic vibrant American tune book. One (when he plays it well) makes me want to cook him a nice lamb stew with pearl onions swimming in the rich gravy; the other (again, when he plays it well, which is almost always) makes me want to—well, I was in The Business, you know, use your imagination.
Only don’t be too sure which is which. Like I said, John almost always plays the music of his own country and heritage well, with a deep feeling that’s irresistible; whereas when he works out the great American tunes it turns out more often to be hit-and-miss, with many many many more misses than hits.
But oh! When he does hit!
When bonny John and his orchestra play “Get Happy” or “The Trolley Song” or “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” or the MGM Jubilee Overture—or the absolute best of the lot, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue“—it’s freakin’ heaven, and I’m not the only one to say this. Subtlety is not this lad’s forte when it comes to the American popular repertoire. But when John goes big, bright, busy and loud when the number actually calls for it, screams out for it, it’s so damn satisfying when he does it and does it brilliantly that I want to—how can I put this?—do something for my darling in gratitude…make him a nice meal…fatten him up a little… (Ess, kind, ess!)
For right now, though, I’ll settle for a natter on a quiet afternoon, rather not in London, maybe when you get up to Gateshead again, back to The Angel of the North…
The song first appeared in a scene in Meet Me in St Louis (MGM, 1944). Divided into a series of seasonal vignettes starting with summer, 1903, the movie relates the story of a year in the life of the Smith family in St Louis, Missouri, leading up to the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (more commonly referred to as the World’s Fair) in the spring of 1904. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland’s character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien.
MGM’s best-known music director arranged this piece in 1954 in commemoration of the studio’s 30th birthday. And since 2004, when my beloved John Wilson and his eponymous orchestra first played this reconstituted medley at the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall, it has gone on to become sort of their signature piece, which they’ve played all over the world from Sydney to Berlin. I can’t imagine how John was able to reconstruct the score directly from hearing this lusterless film short, but my darling has the gift of patience and commitment.
Now….right. Because this is turning out to be thesecond most clicked-on post on my blog (the first most clicked-on being the one about Noli Me Tangere, the Filipino opera based on Jose Rizal’s classic novel) I’ve decided finally to take a few minutes to come back to this posting and add the names of the composers and lyricists as I promised—and bear in mind, I’m doing this pretty much from memory. (I was the night solfeggist at ASCAP, remember?): “Singin’ In the Rain” / Nacio Herb Brown; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” / Cole Porter; “Broadway Rhythm” / Nacio Herb Brown; “The Last Time I Saw Paris” / Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II; “Temptation” (shades of Tony Martin!) / Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed; “Be My Love” (shades of Mario Lanza!) Nicholas Brodzsky / Sammy Cahn; “The Trolley Song” (with the Judy sound) / Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane; “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (more Judy sound) / Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer; “Donkey Serenade” / Herbert Stothart, based on Rudolph Friml; and “Over the Rainbow” (the Judy sound of all Judy sounds) / Harold Arlen, EY Harburg.
The last two numbers “Donkey” and “Rainbow” were obvious tributes to Green’s late predecessor as music director, Oscar winner (for The Wizard of Oz score, which John reconstructed by ear), Herbert Stothart.
Cantara, former ASCAP solfeggist and 70s porn actress turned screenplay writer, has fallen hopelessly in love with a man at the other end of the world, an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor—who plays, on the side, Golden Age of Hollywood music and The Great American Songbook—by the name of John Wilson.
The Queen of Heaven smiles upon you, John. I have it on good authority.
So what is it about him?* I’ve only been aware of his existence since 30 April and in love with him since 4 May, 2018; since then my feelings have been an insane mixture of tenderness, gratitude, annoyance, and lust. The tenderness I understand: I’ve spent enough time in Hollywood to understand the position he’s in… As far as gratitude, read my posts about “The Trolley Song”. Even the raging lust I get.
But whenever John gets himself in the way of the music it drives me nuts. It’s crystal clear to me the times he does this because I’m in love with him, dammit, and because he’s a musician I pay attention to the music. Truth to tell, the only times John really gets himself in the way are when he’s conducting his own hand-picked group which is dedicated mostly to music from Golden Hollywood & The Great American Songbook, and cannily named The John Wilson Orchestra.
Whether he gets himself in the way indeliberately or on purpose I cannot entirely tell, but I’m starting to. With a little patience he isn’t that hard to read, my bonny John Wilson. After countless times listening to his recordings and broadcasts; pouring over his interviews; watching him conduct (in video clips, mainly from the annual BBC Proms); watching him conduct other orchestras besides his own (ditto); and, most important, learning to separate the showman from the musician, I’m starting to understand his type of intelligence and his musical capability, which is actually pretty sizable. His ear (the way he hears things, not his purported perfect pitch) is intriguing and his industriousness is admirable. I am definitely not buying into the PR excess—he is not “a superstar”, “a guru”, “charismatic”, “legendary”, “a conducting icon” or, God help us, as proclaimed by the BBC, “the nation’s favorite” (!!!). But his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.
Announcer Don Wilson, Mary Livingston, Jack Benny, and Irish Tenor Dennis Day
Fellow Minnesotan Clara Edwards (1880-1974) began her career as a composer and songwriter in the 1920s, joining the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in 1925. Edwards composed over 100 works and published over 60 songs. Her songs were “quickly taken up by publishers” (her words), and many famous singers performed them, including soprano Lily Pons and baritone Ezio Pinza. Her most successful song was “With the Wind and the Rain In Your Hair”, with lyrics by Jack Lawrence.
“Long Ago and Far Away” is a popular song from the Columbia Pictures 1944 Technicolor film musical Cover Girl starring Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly. The music was written by Jerome Kern and the lyrics were written by Ira Gershwin. Along with the Blane/Martin Judy classic “The Trolley Song”, “Long Ago…” was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1944 but both lost out to Bing Crosby’s hit “Swinging on a Star”. Sixty years later it finished #92 in AFI’s 100 Years…100 Songs survey of top tunes in American cinema.
This is the song that clinched for me that solfeggist job at ASCAP.
“Long Ago and Far Away” (@07:00) Dennis Day and the Phil Harris Orchestra The Jack Benny Program 04 September 1944