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. 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.

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 weren’t crazy in love with you.

The liner notes from the Chandos issue of Korngold’s Symphony in F can be downloaded here.

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The Warner Bros Story—John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra Play the Royal Albert Hall One Last(?) Time, BBC Proms 9 August 2019

Well, John, this isn’t a Joan Crawford movie so there’s no gold cigarette case but as I’m still in love with you and want to give you nice things, I’ll give you my honest appraisals, which is something I’ve been doing all along anyway (I hope you’ll agree) and not throwing myself into the Atlantic Ocean for your sake. So let’s do this organized, going down the numbers in the program one by one because, as you recall, I used to work at ASCAP:

JW-Prom-29 (1)The complete BBC television broadcast of this concert is available here.

  • “We’re In the Money” (from Gold Diggers of 1933) / Harry Warren, Al Dubin Count on you to include the lyrics in pig Latin.
  • “The Desert Song” (from the 1953 film) / Sigmund Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II Meh. I think the only reason you worked this in is because Kim Criswell’s singing a Romberg song in your 5 January concert in Stockholm, “Softly, As In a Morning Sunrise”, which is a hot, HOT number. In fact I can’t believe you’re going to stand on the same stage when she sings this song and not get incinerated. But that’s just you I guess.
  • The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (suite; from the 1948 film) / Max Steiner God, I forgot how repetitive Max Steiner can be when he’s not cribbing from Herman Hupfeld.
  • The Old Man and the Sea (suite, 1st movement; from the 1958 film) / Dmitri Tiomkin One movement, mercifully short.
  • Seventy-Six Trombones” (from The Music Man, 1962)  / Meredith Willson I lost a bet to Mister Grumble that you would never, never, EVER do this number, ever. (Because, you know, it’s so freakin’ OBVIOUS.) But…yeah, it was okay. No Andre Rieu though.
  • “Blues in the Night” (from Blues In the Night, 1941) / Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer A low-voiced woman should sing this. Preferably a woman who’s been there.
  • Auntie Mame (main title; from the 1958 film) / Bronislav Kaper You know, I’d forgotten how much I like this sweet waltz.
  • Gotta Have Me Go with You” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin See below.
  • “The Man That Got Away” (from A Star is Born, 1954) / Harold Arlen, Ira Gershwin [in an obvious nod to the movie’s latest remake] Of all your singers, Louise Dearman is the only one who could’ve carried these two numbers in this room particularly, and whatever luck or good judgment (and I’m nuts about you dear, but I’m never completely confident about your judgment in these matters) brought her there I’m glad.
  • “Get Me to the Church On Time” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner A little harkening back to your 2012 Proms triumph, eh?
  • 25-MINUTE INTERVAL Proms Plus Talk: a discussion of some of the great film scores being played tonight [Hah! In a pig’s eye] with Matthew Sweet, David Benedict and Pamela Hutchinson
  • Gypsy (overture; from the 1962 film) / Jule Styne, arr Ramin and Ginzler I still have the clip of you conducting this at the 2012 Proms (the other one). This one is sooo much better.
  • Now, Voyager (suite; from the 1942 film) / Max Steiner No need for you to play the entire suite. It’s no musical gem, and all we’re here for the damn Love Theme!!! which by the way Charles Gerhardt wonderfully supplies, including the Steiner-written Warner Bros fanfare.
  • “The Deadwood Stage” (from Calamity Jane, 1953) / Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster [a Doris Day tribute] O-kay! A FULL number from a musical, complete with chorus—this is the very thing that made your name. All is forgiven.
  • “It’s Magic” (from Romance On the High Seas [correction, BBC: “On”, not “In”], 1948) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn [again, a Doris Day tribute] What in the name of heaven possessed whoever decided to include the worst song Jule Styne ever wrote? Redeemable only—only—if Bugs Bunny sings it.
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (main title; from the 1951 film) / Alex North Oh, you’re going to have fun with this one when you have to give sexy program notes to the audience from the podium, like you did in Brighton.
  • If Ever I Would Leave You” (from Camelot, 1967) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner Sure. Okay. Ladies need swoony time.
  • “The Days of Wine and Roses” (from the 1962 film) Henry Mancini arr Nelson Riddle, Johnny Mercer Nelson Riddle!? You used the freakin’ Nelson Riddle arrangement?? What are you trying to do, send love signals to Seth MacFarlane?
  • “Tomorrow” (from The Constant Nymph) / Erich Wolfgang Korngold You had this and your Prince Charming from Cendrillon, Kate Lindsey, up your sleeve! What a nice surprise.
  • ENCORE: “I Could Have Danced All Night” (from My Fair Lady, 1962) / Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner Every soprano in the world wants to hear this song done right. She passes.
  • ENCORE “Harry’s Wondrous World” (from the Harry Potter series of films, 2002-2012) It’s unavoidable, you’re going to do John Williams somewhere. And I know the BBCCO had the scores in their basement because you conducted this with them back in 2007.

Mikaela Bennett, Louise Dearman, Kate Lindsey, Matt Ford, singers. Maida Vale Singers, chorus. Christopher Dee, choral director. Petroc Trelawny, presenter.

By the way, John, glad you shaved this year. Will catch up with you in Nottingham with Vaughan Williams

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My Bonny John Wilson and His Orchestra To Appear at the 2019 BBC Proms IN A NO-TOUR YEAR

From The JWO website: “John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra present The Warner Bros Story, an evening of sumptuous Technicoloured [sheesh] scores from the Golden Age of Hollywood cinema. Friday 9 August 2019 3.00pm & 7.30pm at London’s Royal Albert Hall. Tickets go on sale at 9am for Prom 29 and 30 on Saturday 11 May. Royal Albert Hall Box Office: 020 7589 8212. The evening show will be live on BBC Radio 3 and recorded for future broadcast on BBC Radio 2. Program includes music by Korngold, Harold Arlen, Max Steiner, Sammy Cahn, and many others.”

Also, from what I understand on the JWO website:

THERE WILL BE ABSOLUTELY NO TOUR THIS YEAR!

Bugs as Leopold.jpgThe Bugs Bunny classic, “Long Haired Hare” is available here in partialness. Leopold! Leopold!

Ah, Sammy Cahn, that altekocker. I rode up in an elevator with him and Warner Bros cartoonist Robert Clampett once and had nothing to say to him; at the time Cahn was siding with management against us ASCAP solfeggists when we tried to unionize. So I just stood there quietly, listening to the both of them natter on to each other about their respective accomplishments. “And I wrote that Jackie Gleason song!” exclaimed Cahn, while Clampett was adamantly proud of Tweety Bird, and rightly so.

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On Conductor John Wilson’s Full Dress and The First Porn Movie I Ever Did, 1

Years ago there was a story in a Stephen King collection called “Full Dress, which was about a formal tailcoat that turns its wearer into an insane monster. Eventually it gets worn by a struggling young conductor, and the usual King bloodletting evolves (“It’s not you, it’s the coat!!!” shrieks the pretty soprano, right before Tillotson plunges his baton into her neck).

For some reason that came into to my mind. But just so you don’t go on thinking this is some kind of fanblog (really, I’m not a fan*, just crazy in love with the bloke) I thought I’d spend a posting to tell you all how I got my first gig in pictures.

John Wilson.jpegImmaculate white full dress shirt with detachable wing collar, white dickey, white bow tie, white waistcoat, studs, cufflinks, suspenders, striped trousers, and a spare tailcoat in the dressing room—my bonny lad is set

This happened in San Francisco—in the 70s a paradise for the sexually adventurous—and coming after the time I worked as classic film director Rouben Mamoulian’s amanuensis, which was after the time I posed nude for a blind sculptor in St-Paul-de-Vence, which was after the time I danced topless in a mob-run bar in Red Hook, which was after the time I was the night solfeggist at ASCAP

So anyway. One lovely summer evening about six weeks after I hit the city I went with a (legit) actress friend to a house party up on Potrero Hill, mostly because she enticed me with the information that the party would be featuring a hot tub. (Am such a pushover for hot tubs.) Well, at the party there was this cute but obvious older guy from London (trimmed ginger beard, open shirt, bead bracelet—no one goes California like the English) named Paul, who owned the house and who invited me seulement for a session of coke+quaaludes and a nice soak later, after all the other guests have left. Then he gave me his card. (This was only the second time a man ever gave me his business card before we had sex, and it wouldn’t be the last)…

Part 2 “Zombie Love Slave” here.
Part 3 “Sausalito Hot Tub” here.
Part 4 “Lovelace” here.

*No, really, I’m in love with John but he plows through Gershwin like a bull moose and treats Bernstein like Bernstein’s Saruman and he’s Frodo. How could any red-blooded American woman countenance such effrontery to her national pride?**

**He does, however, conduct Elgar and Vaughan Williams like an angel.

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John Wilson Conducts The JWO in a Big Band Swingin’ Symphonic Medley, BBC2, Christmas Day 2010

Brazen hussy shimmy alert at 6:26. Whoever would stifle that shimmy in years to come, my bonny, would stifle your spirit.

John Wilson Swinging.jpg

Excerpts by composer and band: “Skyliner” – Barnet / Charlie Barnet; “Take the A Train” – Billy Strayhorn and vocalist Joya Sherrill / Duke Ellington; “Let’s Dance” – Gregory Stone (based on von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance”, orchestrated by Hector Berlioz) / Benny Goodman; “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm” – Irving Berlin / Ray Noble; “Begin the Beguine” – Cole Porter / Artie Shaw; “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” – Ned Washington and George Bassman / Tommy Dorsey; “Midnight Sun” – Hampton and Sonny Burke / Lionel Hampton; “You Made Me Love You” – Monaco and McCarthy / Harry James; “Moonlight Serenade” – Miller / Glenn Miller; “Peanut Vendor” – Moisés Simons / Stan Kenton; “Woodchoppers Ball” – Joe Bishop / Woody Herman; “One O’Clock Jump” – Count Basie / Count Basie. Orchestral arrangement by composer Andrew Cottee.

Once again, my ASCAP training comes to the fore…

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The MGM Jubilee Overture Arranged by Johnny Green, Reconstructed and Conducted by John Wilson, and Played by The John Wilson Orchestra

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.

John Wilson, the Francois Villon of the PodiumJohn Wilson, the Francois Villon of the podium. Added attraction: Here’s one of those rare moments when John conducted without his baton, which fell out of his grasp but was retrieved seconds later by an alert string player. Berlin, 2016.

Now….right. Because this is turning out to be the second 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.

Deleted: 2 bars plus “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” / Frank Loesser and John, I’d really enjoy a little chat with you regarding, among other things, your fellow musical reconstructor Philip Lane’s comments one of these days.

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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 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.

John Wilson Proms.jpeg
The Queen of Heaven smiles upon you, John. I have it on good authority.

Not because he’s a fellow creator (he doesn’t create, but reconstructs, orchestrates and arranges the music of others)—not because of his looks (he’s peaky, scrawny, blinky; his gray-green eyes lack luster; he’s got a facial tic, lousy posture, enormous feet, the limbs of a stick insect 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?* 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.

Part 2 “His Limits” here or below.

* Update 10 August 2019: I’ve just read up on what it is about him, and now I’ve got science to back me up. It’s John’s fault.

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