It was just the other night had a fever dream, running a 101-degree temperature and twisting the sheets, not longing for my beloved John Wilson this time, but trying to fight off an infection. When I finally made it into sweet sweaty sleep I was immediately taken into a strange scenario where, for God knows what reason, I was expected to conduct, with no rehearsal, Australian composer Brett Dean’s tribute to the doomed Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, in front of an audience of 200-800 (the crowd kept stealthily increasing), among whose number were members of the orchestra I couldn’t tell apart and no one was helping me. Being a dream, there were other factors and factors conspiring to keep me from conducting the damn piece: the string section turned into one fella carrying a zither that turned into a floor harp; the stage manager was nowhere to be found and I was expected to run the lights as well; no one would give me a copy of the score. When I yelled out, “Okay, who’s got the tinfoil?” it was then I woke up.
The thing is, I’ve never dreamed about conductors before, much less being one myself; never wanted to be a conductor in real life, never even thought much about the breed—until I fell in love with John, of course… And even then the question still keeps coming back to me: Well, what are they good for anyway?
Still in my dream, the moment before I woke up, I heard a tiny voice whisper: Conductors are not disposable. I take this to be a message. In fact I take this to be the message, the one I’m meant to convey. The one I’m meant to conduct. In fact I think I can make a gig out of it.
You know, I did a paper on the novella this opera’s based on, The Turn of the Screw, back in grad school. Something about the whole thrust of the story having to do with, ultimately, Henry James’s weird revulsion to/fear of sexuality—any sexuality—gay, straight, bi, kinky, whatever. Which in my ignorant prejudice I took to be typical of all English men anytime, anywhere—until I remembered that James was born not just American but, like my son, a native New Yorker (used to take The Kid to the playground in Washington Square near James’s old house) and he turned out fine. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of textual interpretation OperaGlass Works, who’re engaging John for late March 2020, go with.
Luckily my English born-and-bred John has nothing to do with the story (really, James’s story is a creepy creepy story) on stage. He’ll be conducting members of his very own Sinfonia of London in the pit of Screw and this, mes amis, is a big deal, because this will be 1) the Sinfonia’s first public appearance since John (re)formed it a year ago, so it’s a chance for their fans to hear them in person; and 2) they get to play the music of Benjamin Britten together.
During Easter Week, the holiest week of the year for observing Catholics, John will be 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.
Lastly, re “Meditation”, 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 new album (10th cut) and in which Andrew Haveron performs his violin solo like an angel:
I thought it was important to put in this posting’s title the date in which the self-taught French composer Chabrier wrote this enduringly scrumptious piece, the orchestration sounding more like something post-WWI. Yet it was composed during the height of La Belle Epoque. This was the last piece (a reduction, of course) I ever played on the violin in my junior high school orchestra, before switching a couple years later, at 16, to Voice at the University of Minnesota.
Lastly, a word about the strings in the fourth movement. Yup, there was that “John Wilson Orchestra shimmer”, that famous wrist vibrato anyone who’s ever picked up a violin recognizes and has to have come to terms with fairly early in training. We used to wonder if it made our playing actually sound better, and it depends. The Russians and Mittel-Europeans used it a lot a hundred years ago. Some call this type of playing now “period playing”. My old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, called this style of playing “Crying Violins”. He claimed it was his idea to use it in the musical Love Me Tonight, in the “Isn’t It Romantic” sequence.
John Wilson, winner of the 2018 Incorporated Society of Musicians Distinguished Musician Award, conducts the Academy Symphony Orchestra in a Russian-themed program: Brett Dean’s 2006 work “Komarov’s Fall”, followed by Academy piano student Bocheng Wang joining the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 “Pateticheskaya” (better known as the “Pathétique”) closes the concert.
Just a couple things concerning John’s ever-evolving technique. Noticed that in the Tchaikovsky, in the Allegro con grazia he put down his baton in order to use both hands in shaping the sound, which worked just fine and made the second movement the most effective movement of the symphony. In the third movement, that young percussionist played the cymbals with more reverberation, making a less snappy sound—on time, but eliciting a very visible reaction from their conductor. In fact, it was enough to prompt my bonny to take the kerchief to wipe his face out of his pocket with a decided snap, as well as to turn the score page with a snap equally as audible—a discernable message—before taking a moment to humbly submit to the music and end the concert with a satisfying fourth.
Back in 2018 John conducted Symphonies 1 and 2; in 2019 he did the 3rd, the 4th, and the tranquil 5th, and this year, 2020, on 15 January, he’ll be conducting Vaughan Williams’s fairly atypical 6th with the BBC Philharmonic (in a program that includes “In the Fen Country”, also by Vaughan Williams) in Nottingham (according to his management website; the BBC says it’s Salford).