The Story So Far, with Conductor John Wilson

Cantara, former ASCAP solfeggist and 70s porn actress turned screenplay writer, has fallen hopelessly in love with a man on the other side of the world, an English, middling orchestra conductor who specializes in Golden Age of Hollywood music and The Great American Songbook, by the name of John Wilson.

Not because he’s a fellow creator (he doesn’t create, but reconstructs and conducts music)—not because of his looks (he’s peaky, scrawny, blinky; his gray-green eyes lack luster; he’s got a facial tic, lousy posture, and the hands of a hod carrier; his nose is an equilateral triangle; his famous cleft chin, supposedly his best feature, always looks slightly askew; his ultra-short mousy hair can’t conceal the fact he’s already going gray; he sweats like a stevedore on the podium; and for the past few years he’s taken to wearing geek glasses)—and certainly not for his intellect (his fatuous pronouncement about the needlessness of lyrics in The Great American Songbook makes me want to smack the back of his head like the whippersnapper he is and send him home with a note).

So what is it about him? Honestly, at this point I don’t know. I’ve only been aware of his existence since April 30 and in love with him since May 4. But there are three things I do know for sure: His ear (the way he hears things) is intriguing, his industriousness is admirable, and his musicianship at times is kiiind of brilliant.

John on Sarah's Music.jpg

Here‘s Sarah Willis’s 2016 interview with John and key members of his own eponymous orchestra where his technique in bringing out “The Hollywood Sound” is discussed. Discussion of his string technique with Sarah and JWO’s first violinist starts at 5:40.

All the rest of this is just Cantara trying to sort out where bonny John fits into her inner life. Which as it turns out right now is in every nook, every cranny…

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The Earworm That is Knightsbridge, Conducted by John Wilson

You’ve heard this piece a lot if you, like me, have regularly tuned in to the BBC over the years. (It was the signature song for the twice-a-day radio program Music While You Work during WW2, a lee-tle before my time.) This is a sprightly “march” with a grand ending that doesn’t sound deserved—which is why I can’t get it out of my head—unless you know that this is actually the final movement of an entire 17-minute suite.

Performed by the BBC Symphony for the program “British Light Music” at the 2500-seat Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011.

I thoroughly enjoy watching John conduct the works of Eric Coates as he seems to take a personal delight in this particular composer—check out the very grand “Dambusters” below (starting at 6:05; endearing look of satisfaction unclouded by thought at 9:10).

Slaughter on Tenth Avenue by Richard Rodgers, Orchestrated by Don Walker, and Conducted by John Wilson

Before I call out my bonny lad on a couple of his more recent musical choices that have been bugging the hell out of me, I think it’s only fair to share the best clips available of John’s own 24-year-old orchestra—cunningly named the John Wilson Orchestra—which, out of over 200(!) on YouTube in nine years, come down to about three, maybe four clips spread out through 2009-2017.

So here’s the first. This is from their 2012 show “Broadway Sounds” at the BBC Proms in the Royal Albert Hall in London, which seats 5200, with standing room for 1300 on the ground floor (tickets for which go for only 6L and for which people camp out overnight at the box office like it was goddamn Winterland). This is pertinent, because it seems like the JWO only does its best work when it can blast the roof off a barn.

I had the old Ben Bagley recording and the 1983 Broadway revival recording (conducted by John Mauceri) of the Rodgers & Hart show On Your Toes—which of course includes the climactic ballet “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue”—but both producer Bagley as well as musical theater preservationist Mauceri put on disc the 1936 Robert Russell Bennett orchestration rather than the 1954 one by Don Walker. Our John, being John (I’m starting to get into his “ear”), chose the Walker score to play in Albert Hall, and for once he was entirely right.

The Death Star and Dambusters Played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Conducted by John Wilson

A grand movie score by the prolific Eric Coates, very inspiring and very English. This is the kind of piece that cues you to proudly fly the Union Jack, which obviously some chap did, right in the middle of the Royal Albert Hall. I’m guessing this is some sort of tradition. The 2007 BBC Proms included the famous climactic shots from The Dambusters—you know, the movie George Lucas ripped off when he did Star Wars. Not the Death Star down there, though, it’s the Eder Dam in the heart of Nazi Germany (6:05).

The Trolley Song by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blaine, Orchestrated by Conrad Salinger

Co-composer Blaine 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.

Orchestrator for this song—as well as the entire MGM Judy Garland musical Meet Me in St Louis—was Conrad Salinger. “Salinger’s arrangement was a masterpiece,” wrote producer Hugh Fordin. “His [was] a very special sound and style that has never been equalled in the American movie musical.”

Orchestrator/arranger/conductor Jack Campey pointed to this clip highlighting Salinger’s orchestration, sans vocals. Cheers, Jack.