Leonard Bernstein Hears Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp for the First Time

I created this posting just for John Wilson, Conductor fans (and as a lagniappe for the lad himself). By the way, the third movement is the one you want if you want to hear violinist Andrew Haveron shine:

In 1988, I brought a recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp to Leonard Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was a rare event to have dinner with him and no one else. After dinner, I asked if he would be willing to hear something I had discovered and found particularly interesting.

Erich Korngold

I played the first movement of the symphony. Bernstein only knew that it was a symphony and therefore might have expected it to be in four movements. After intently listening to the twelve-minute movement, he had no idea who the composer was, but he liked the music enough to ask to hear the second movement. And so it went, after each movement I gave him a chance to beg off. The symphony’s third movement—its emotional climax—inspired him to jump to the piano and repeat its opening motif and the devastating substitution in its harmonic structure that happens twenty seconds into it. After the last movement, I told him who had composed it. I also told him that though the piece was completed in 1952, its concert premiere did not take place until 1972, fifteen years after the composer’s death.

On first hearing, Bernstein thought the symphony should have ended with the third movement, which would have made it a very tragic symphony indeed. I suspect he heard it in terms of Mahler, which is appropriate enough. He had not predicted—or perhaps wanted—its upbeat finale that takes the gentle second theme of the first movement and transforms it into a positive march, albeit with a dark warning before its conclusion.

Be that as it may…I am sure that he would have turned his attention to Korngold had he not passed away in 1990. Ironically, one of his mentors, Dimitri Mitroupoulos, had stated in 1959 that he had finally found “the perfect modern work” and planned to perform the Korngold the next season with the New York Philharmonic, but his death intervened.

from For the Love of Music:
A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening
by John Mauceri (Knopf, 2019)

Now my bonny John Wilson, please note the nice review I gave your Korngold, for chrissakes.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp—John Wilson Conducting the Sinfonia of London (Chandos, 2019)

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. But 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, and all smiles stopped together.

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… I mean, dig that first movement, doesn’t 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! I recognize those coupla bars from the movie!

Elizabeth and Essex Warners 1939
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 didn’t know a thing about you.

Now on to Walton’s Symphony no.1. I’ll be listening on the BBC when it streams.

Conductor John Wilson, Grieving for a Lost Star, “Stereophonic Sound” by Cole Porter, and Going Hollywood

It actually would hurt me, John Wilson my beloved, if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you—as more or less part of the gig rather than as a person. Something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching (the pre-2013) Family Guy anyway. Nothing personal against your chum.

The Joker.jpg

No, I lie, it’s personal.

About ten, no, eleven years ago the best friend of the son of my (now ex-) friend died unexpectedly in New York, and it was a shock to everyone. My son, who was the same age, was a big, big fan of his—more than a fan, in fact, he practically worshipped this young actor—and was in tears that day. I texted my friend and we shared our shock and grief. Daniel Day-Lewis stopped an interview, sobbing, “I didn’t know him, I have a strong impression I would have liked him very much…and so looked forward to the work he would do in the future.” I’d so like to have witnessed this young man’s progress on screen and stage through the years myself. He was the new Brando—better than Brando, in fact, as he not only acted and directed but wrote as well. And he wasn’t even thirty. He was handsome and vigorous, he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was the most committed actor I’d seen on screen since De Niro in Mean Streets.

So there he was dead in NY. On the streets of Beverly Hills, some roving celebrity reporter from one of the gossip shows was out and about getting sound bits for his show, and came across Rob Lowe and MacFarlane. After some genial exchange of bullshit the rover blurted, Did you hear the news from New York? and without a pause went right into giving them the news. Lowe dropped his mask in a second, truly stunned. MacFarlane drawled almost offhandedly, “We-ell, this is disconcerting…” And at that moment I started to genuinely hate the little creep. That joke song he tried to pull off several years later at the 2013 Oscars, “We Saw Your Boobs”, didn’t help his case either. MacFarlane’s a great dealmaker and Stewie is an outrageous creation…but that just isn’t enough for my scorecard.

Anyway, I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. And I tend to take things like that hard. Not exactly an asset in this town.

On another note:

“Stereophonic Sound”
Silk Stockings, MGM 1957
Janis Paige, Fred Astaire
Rouben Mamoulian, Director

Silk Stockings was the last movie my old boss Mamoulian, aka The Old Man, ever did (at 60—he died at 90), and “Stereophonic Sound” is one of the numbers on John Wilson + Orchestra’s 2014 Cole Porter album. But watch the clip instead. Janis Paige is the focus in this number but Fred Astaire at 58 is still a joy.

Dmitri Shostakovich—Concerto for Violin and Orchestra no.1 in A minor Played by Hilary Hahn, With Mariss Jansons Conducting the Berliner Philarmoniker, 2001

In observance of this premier violinist’s one-year sabbatical from music which starts this September, here’s a clip of Hilary Hahn at the tender age of 20(!) making her mark with Shostakovich’s concerto. The precision that she, Jansons and the Berliner Phil share takes my breath away.

Shostakovich Violin Concerto Hilary Hahn

Camille Saint-Saëns—Cello Concerto no.1 in A minor, Performed by Jacqueline du Pré and Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

On the 12th of September, 2019 my beloved John Wilson appeared at the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, starting off with cellist Andreas Brantelid performing the Saint-Saëns concerto, and finishing off the evening with Holst’s The Planets, which John has perfected to his satisfaction, conducting as he did in 2013 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Leeds in 4 of the 7 Planets.

Here’s the Goddess’s chosen one, Jacqueline du Pré, playing the concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, her husband Daniel Barenboim at the podium. In the time they had, they did not squander the gift that was given to them to make music together.

Jacqueline dupre big laugh

 

The Earworm That is “Knightsbridge” Conducted by Its Composer Eric Coates and Then By My Bonny John Wilson

John recorded Eric Coates’s entire London Everyday suite back in January and Chandos just released the CD. “Knightsbridge”, the last movement, is well-known as the signature tune for BBC Radio’s In Town Tonight. It’s a sprightly march with a grandness that doesn’t sound deserved, which is why I can’t get it out of my head.

Here it is performed by the BBC Symphony for the program British Light Music at the 2900-seat Royal Festival Hall in London, 2011, with 39-year-old John conducting.

john-wilson-knightsbridge-1You really fought for that tympani, didn’t you? For heaven’s sake my bonny, this isn’t MGM.

And here’s John’s new (though not much changed) rendition with the BBC Philharmonic.

I’m crazy in love with John but I swear to God, I’ve compared this to the 1932 recording of Eric Coates conducting his own piece and Coates’s is far superior. It’s not meant to be grand at all! This is what the sound ought to be, less boomy-boom and more tra-la.

John, we have to talk. The more I hear your musical choices the more I long to get into your head.

My First Music: Original Soundtrack for Picnic (Columbia, 1955) Composed by George Duning, Orchestrated by Arthur Morton, and Conducted by Morris Stoloff

According to composer Duning, Picnic director Joshua Logan insisted on using the old standard “Moonglow” (Hudson-Mills-DeLange, 1933) in a critical scene, as had been done in the Broadway play, but demanded that Duning’s love theme be added at a specific point. Columbia’s music director Stoloff and Duning complied, creating a unique arrangement of the song and the movie theme, and it became an iconic moment in 1950s cinema, a pairing of tunes that would thereafter seem inextricably intertwined. [Read more on George Duning from the Film Music Society here.]

William Holden Kim Novak Picnic.jpgWilliam Holden and Kim Novak in the famous dance scene. Cinematography by James Wong Howe.

The entire soundtrack for Picnic was uploaded to YouTube by a thoughtful fan of George Duning’s.

Here’s that “Moonglow-Picnic” number.

And for good measure, here’s popular 50s singer Dorothy Collins’s rendition from her album Dorothy Collins Sings Steve Allen (Allen wrote the lyrics).