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 mystery 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.
From Playbill.com, 2008: Conductor, arranger and musical scholar John Wilson will bring his 58-piece orchestra to the Shaw Theatre August 20-23 for That’s Entertainment!, an evening of music and song that celebrates the great MGM musicals.
The John Wilson Orchestra will perform original orchestrations and scores, many of which have been newly reconstructed by Wilson himself, to pay tribute to some of America’s greatest composers and songwriters, including George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Harry Warren, Jerome Kern and Richard Rodgers as well as the great Hollywood arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Nelson Riddle. The evening will feature music and songs from some of Hollywood’s best-loved MGM musicals: High Society, Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris, Ziegfeld Follies, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Wizard of Oz. Special guest vocalists are Matt Ford, Rachel Weston and Gary Williams.
As a conductor, Wilson works regularly with the Hallé, City of Birmingham Symphony, Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, BBC Scottish and BBC Concert orchestras. He is a frequent guest conductor in Europe: Recent visits have taken him to the RTE Concert Orchestra in Dublin, and to Scandinavia, Iceland and Bulgaria. Last year he made his Australian debut in Melbourne and Adelaide and his London Philharmonic debut at the Royal Festival Hall. He is also a musical arranger for film, radio and TV, where his credits include orchestrating Sir Richard Rodney Bennett’s score for the BBC production of Gormenghast, which won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Score; Howard Goodall’s score for the BBC/HBO film The Gathering Storm about Winston Churchill; and the soundtrack for Kevin Spacey’s Beyond The Sea biopic of singer Bobby Darin, which gained my brilliant, bonny John a Grammy nomination. He has also worked with Sir Paul McCartney and has orchestrated and conducted several of Sir Paul’s compositions with the London Symphony Orchestra.
He has also reconstructed the orchestrations of the major MGM musicals High Society, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, and An American in Paris. In January he gave the first European performances of his orchestrations of The Wizard of Oz with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, synchronized with the film.
I got my first record collection when I was 3 1/2. We had just moved into a little bungalow in Northeast Minneapolis and the previous owners had left a stack of old, old 45s and 78s—Patti Page, Rosemary Clooney, Nelson Eddy, Rudy Vallee etc etc. which my mother, God bless her, let me keep for myself to play on my kiddie record player! This, mes amis, was my first true introduction to The Great American Songbook. But wasn’t until I started working at ASCAP (at 18) where I had to learn the names of the melody and lyric writers the name “Billy Rose” came popping up (year is date of recording):
Front Row: What’s so enthralling to you about the music of Erich Korngold?
John: It’s very much his own style… You hear two seconds of music and immediately you know it’s by Korngold because by the way he was 13 or 14 he had a fully developed late-Romantic Austro-German style and, you know, had it not been for the Nazis and the Second World War he would have continued to develop his operatic skills, his symphonic skills, and he would now be as established as Richard Strauss…
Front Row: What made you choose the particular pieces [for the Chandos recording] that you did?
John: I think the Symphony, Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, is the last great Austro-German romantic symphony and…it was written 1947 to 52, it took 5 years, and…I think it was the piece that Korngold spent, lavished the most time on. I think it was the piece that he felt was he felt he really had to write because it was a labor of love… And you know, he couldn’t get a satisfactory performance out of it during his lifetime because he was considered old hat…and in 1972 I think it was, it was discovered in the Munich orchestra’s library and the first recording performance given… And I just felt that the time had come for a revised sort of conception of this symphony of Korngold’s.
From MusicalCriticism.com, 2009: As part of the celebrations for Johnny Mercer’s centenary, the BBC Concert Orchestra mounted two semi-staged performances of his final stage musical, The Good Companions, at the Watford Colosseum in Hertfordshire. Conductor John Wilson—who led the phenomenally popular MGM Prom this August, as well as a fantastic concert performance of My Fair Lady in Gateshead in July—came together with an experienced cast that included Liz Robertson, Ian Talbot and Annalene Beechey to perform the show, which was first staged in London in 1974. The results could not have been more entertaining.
Above Inigo, Susie Dean and Miss Trant: Judi Dench, from the 1974 West End production, sings “Darkest Before Dawn”.
The Good Companions is based on JB Priestley’s most popular novel—indeed the work that solidified his reputation. It tells the tale of an upper-middle class woman who—quite against the advice of her relatives—decides to use her newfound wealth to fund a group of strolling players whose director has run off with all the money; escape is a strong theme of the show. One can see why the backstage musical flavour of the novel must have appealed to the book and song writers.
The libretto for the West End show was adapted by Ronald Harwood, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Pianist. Composer Andre Previn, former Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote the music for the Gene Kelly film It’s Always Fair Weather and conducted the films Gigi and My Fair Lady. Lyricist Mercer received nineteen Academy Award nominations and was the lyricist of dozens of American standards including “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses”.
In short, the piece is an underrated little gem (the original cast album starring Judi Dench, John Mills and Marti Webb was briefly available but is now a rarity), and in conductor John Wilson’s taut performance all the nuances came through. It seems the project has been a labour of love for him: the original full orchestral score was lost after being simplified for amateur productions, and although some of the original performing parts were eventually discovered by Caroline Underwood of the Warner/Chappell music publishers, Wilson has had to restore parts of the score for which no material survived. He has rendered the work of Angela Morleyand Herb Spencer, the orchestrators of the original production, extremely sympathetically, and led the performance with verve.
With theMaida Vale Singers covering a range of smaller roles and raising the roof in the ensemble numbers, and the BBC Concert Orchestra playing at their exquisite best, this was a superb evening. One hopes the same team will explore more classic musicals in the future, but in the meantime the Radio 3 broadcast on 16 November at 7pm is not to be missed. ~Dominic McHugh
There were some particularly strong singers in the BBC Proms concert at the Royal Albert back in 2011 I take pleasure in remembering, on this gray Monday two days before The Inauguration. On va voir. “Serenade” from The Student Prince was one of my mother’s favorite numbers, she just thrilled to it, especially when Mario Lanza was singing. “Can’t Help Singing” was in my Deanna Durbin Songbook when I was a teenager. “The Man That Got Away” was sung at my friend’s funeral—the friend who left me all his Andre Previn records—by his grieving lover. And then there’s “Secret Love”.
Lead in this feature was a fascinating woman named Juliet Anderson, a classroom teacher who, in early middle age (39), started in porn and quickly became a star due to her talent in enthusiastic penilingism, plus she photographed well doing it. I was a little more delicate going about it but I think no less effective as a wiggly little lovedoll. Fan Brian likens this pose to the one in “Cantara, 1973” except in 1973 I was 18 and this flick was shot 8 years later on a proper set.
On this 25 November, the 57th anniversary of the funeral of our own murdered-in-broad-daylight John Fitzgerald Kennedy, nothing moves me as much as the handful of scenes (here on my YT channel) where RD’s time-traveling spaceship crew—Kryten the android, Rimmer the Hologram, Cat the evolved cat, and Dave Lister the last human in the universe—unite with a disgraced JFK to right a timeline gone wrong and restore our 35th president’s shining legacy to history. That’s American actor Michael J Shannon playing Kennedy / The Shooter on the Grassy Knoll.
Above Robert Llewellyn, Chris Barrie, Danny John-Jules, Craig Charles and Michael J Shannon as Kennedy / The Shooter on the Grassy Knoll: The Red Dwarf theme by Howard Goodall, who also wrote the score to The Gathering Storm (2002), which was orchestrated, at age 30, by my beloved John Wilson.
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:
Everybody, go away. I’m gazing at John with love and longing and taking this to a private place.
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