I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga (all 26 episodes available on YT here) was first shown on American TV and I thought it was the coolest series ever.* It was about a large, rich and, though unconnected, influential family living in late-capitalist England circa 1879, who keep getting into pretty heated conflicts with each other—which at the bottom are really about, more or less, the value of art and the inner life vs commerce—all the while being beautifully attired and beautifully well-spoken. Hearing this royal fanfare from “Halcyon Days” that opened the show was enough to get me all excited with anticipation on a Sunday night, but it wasn’t until last year around May when I finally discovered the composer of the piece, Eric Coates, plus the rest of this ravishing movement, when I fell in love with conductor John Wilson and developed a raging need to get close to the music he’s close to.
Soames played by Eric Porter—The Man of Property, Noted Art Collector, and about as Mr Wrong as you can get—mistook his wife for a soulless mannequin and, in novelist John Galsworthy’s sardonic words, “asserted his marital rights and acted like a man” in this scene, in which the BBC made shocking good use of Nyree Dawn Porter’s lovely embonpoint.
My beloved John Wilson conducted this 29 March, 2022 in Salford, as part of a program devoted exclusively to the music of prolific BBC composer, Eric Coates. It was glorious.
Of course it’s not Bella Seaton (Jean Heywood) in When the Boat Comes In (all episodes here) speaking that line, it’s her daughter, schoolteacher Jessie, pleading the case of an artistic young pupil doomed to work down the coal pit in Gallowshields, a post-WWI fictional town—a composite of all the little towns along the River Tyne in the north near Newcastle (you know, that place in the phrase “Selling coals to Newcastle is like selling ice to Eskimos”) including the town where my beloved BBC conductor John Wilson was born and bred, Gateshead*. Bella is the strong-willed matriarch, as we Yanks would say, of the Seaton family, so she gets a lot of scenes, which is great because I pick up the the Geordie accent from Northumberland-born Heywood more easily than from anyone else in the show.
As I might have mentioned a few postings ago I did three of my flicks speaking in a foreign accent: one in French, one in Cuban, and one in Malaysian, which I actually did in Filipino but no one could tell the difference. I like to practice the Geordie accent during off moments, you know, because it reminds me of John, and so it gives me pleasure.
During a live-to-streaming broadcast,bonny John was kind enough to share his thoughts about the foremost 20th century composer of English Light Music, Eric Coates (1886 – 1957):
John was all of 26 when he first conducted a recording of “The Enchanted Garden” with the BBC Concert Orchestra in 1998 for Chandos.
ON COATES’S PLACE IN ENGLISH MUSIC
“Well you know, people often say that there’s nobody between Purcell and Elgar, there’s this three-hundred-year sort of gap when we were a land without music—but there was this one composer of genius and significance between that…1870s…which is Sullivan, and it was Sullivan who was sort of the founding father of what we might call, uh, Light Music in England with his “Overture di Ballo”, and that’s aside from his partnership with Gilbert. After Sullivan you had Edward German, and by the time you get to his successor, Eric Coates, the new medium of broadcasting means that this school of me-tic-ulously crafted, uh, pieces for orchestra has a, has a much wider listenership… So I don’t think it’s farfetched to say that Coates was one of the very first composers to be made by the new medium of broadcasting. And between 1906 and 1957 when he died he had this fifty-year career, that’s five decades, um, in which he was very single-minded in his ambitions to write beautifully-crafted, um, easygoing pieces for orchestra. … He’s one of the most meticulous craftsman of all and, uh, you know, he famously met Maurice Ravel in 1925, they had lunch at the Ritz to swap ideas on orchestration, which is (exhales short laugh) quite something.”
ON COATES’S FANTASY PIECES:
“He had a, a small child, Austin, uh, born in 1922, and he was forever haranguing him to set his favorite, uh, bedtime stories to music, so that’s where “The Selfish Giant” [slurred], which is the first, then “The Three Bears” and then in 1930 “Cinderella” originated. And they’re perfect, um, little vehicles, for sort of miniature orchestral tone-poems, and several of them were later turned into ballets and staged.” …
“I think, um, it was the perfect form for a composer who didn’t want to venture into symphonies. You know, just as as the suite is the perfect kind of miniature form of a symphony, so these nursery, uh, these fairy tales were the sort of tone-poems in miniature, ideally suited to Coates’s talent.”
ON COATES’S “THE SELFISH GIANT”
“Um, I think the most significant thing in this piece is the newly-found use of syncopation in the orchestra, and it caused quite a stir in 1925 or wherever [sic] it was written, ‘cause it was the first kind of fusion of, uh, syncopated jazz rhythms… I mean, harmless now when you hear them, but caused sort of semi-scandalous [sic] at the time, and people were writing to the newspaper saying, We must ban jazz, you know, morally disintegrating and all of that… [fades]”
ON COATES’S COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
“There’s a contractual side of Coates’s life, because he was very early on given a, a long-term contract with Chappell’s, the publisher, with whom he remained for most of his life, and that contract stipulated that he had to write one extended work, and three short wor—two short works—and three songs every year. And that’s basically all he did. For fifty years. He never stepped outside the terms of his contract, and I think he had trouble getting down to composition, it was, he was always, I remember his son Austin, whom I knew very well, telling me he was always just happy to be fiddling around with his camera and, and his hobbies and things like that, you know, composing was always something had to sort of apply himself to rather reluctantly.”
ON COATES’S RECORDED MUSIC
“He, as I say, all of these new sort of fo-forms of media, the 78 record and then later the long-playing record… You see that—you see the appearance of each new sort of, uh, (clears throat) form of recording being mirrored in the, in the sort of, the timings of Coates’s piece. So when you get th’—when Decca bring out the, the long-playing FFRR recording process y-you see that the ‘Four Centuries’ Suite ju-just tailored to those kinds of processes and lens(?) So yes, he always had his eye on, on, on how to disseminate his, his music [fades].”
ON COATES’S “VALSE-ROMANCE” AND “LAZY NIGHT”
“We-ll yeah, I mean, you know, they’re so transparently scored, these pieces, no, there’s nev—nothing ever unnecessarily doubled, everything’s carefully calculated, i-it’s like, you know, any of those Rossini or Mozart or Schubert, but one person sort of slightly off-center and it tells, so there’s nowhere to hide, it’s one of these… [fades]”
ON COATES’S “THE ENCHANTED GARDEN” (1938)
“Yup, bigger orchestra, I think it’s his longest single movement, twenty minutes, and, um, I guess he was at the peak of his powers, you know, he was a, he was re(?) master of the orchestra by, by this stage, so for he, for him, he wanted the use of the more exotic instruments, such as the bass clarinet…cor anglais…which don’t really appear in many of his other pieces because he was a, you know, he used to write for the, the salon orchestras of the day and the seaside orchestras and light orchestras… Again, rise in gramophone records, you know, all those, uh, freelance orchestras which could be assembled at a minute’s notice to, to make records, he did a lot of that. …
“Household name by 1933 with the, with the ‘London’ Suite, twenty thousand letters to the BBC, and they had to have a, a constable standing outside the door of their flat to, uh, to, ‘cause there were so many, sort of, autograph hunters and what-have-you. … They were always moving house, you know. His wife used go to the estate agents, like most people go to the supermarket, and she was always picking out… [fades] Poor old Eric was always being dragged from, from one place to th’— She was always dreaming up scenarios for Mrs Coates, and I think she wrote the scenario for this ballet. Several of his other sort of, uh, ballets were, were, were to stories by his beloved wife, and, uh, they made very effective stage pieces as you can hear, ‘cause he, he had a sort of, eh, eh, good dramatic instinct, you know, lots of colorful, eh, fantasy episodes in a piece like this.”
ON COATES AND THE MUSICAL THEATER
“He dabbled with theater, he wrote three musicals which were never, uh, completed, although with all the songs are written [sic], but the books weren’t…um…finished. And, uh, you know, one wonders why he never quite sort of, um, made his name in the theater, ‘cause he certainly had the melodic gifts, you know, to rival Ivor Novello and Noel Coward and Vivian Ellis and all those people of the, of the period. But his greatest need, musically, was the, was the, was the sound of the, the orchestra, yeah, yeah, that’s why he put pen to paper, and the idea of writing a musical and someone else doing the orchestration, that never quite fired his imagination enough, I don’t think.”
ON ERIC COATES’S MASTERPIECE
“…No, it’s ‘The Four Centuries’ Suite, that’s where he’s at his most dazzling, which you can hear on Volume IV…(pause, audience laughs)…whenever that may be.”
AGAIN, ON COATES’S COMMERCIAL SUCCESS
“…The highest composer [sic] in England I think, making three hundred quid a week in the 1930s, not bad.” …
“He was, he was a viola player, and, ah, he was principal viola of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra and he was, ah, longing to give up the viola ‘cause he said it was too heavy and (audience laughs), and, and he had this great big, you know, seventeen-inch viola, and he said it used to give him arm ache, and he’s longing to give it up, and so he decided to do that. Well, he didn’t decide that, he got the sack, for sending too many deputies. To rehearsals. (audience laughs) Henry Wood gave him the sack. And so his hand was forced and he became a composer, a full-timer [sic] of necessity. Ah, but I think it was this piece that sort of consolidated his position.”
ON COATES’S “SUMMER DAYS” SUITE
“I think, you know, Coates, eh, really never wanted reality to, sort of, um, come into-to his musical world, they were always il-lu-sory picture postcard pieces d-designed to sort of transport the listener. Um, even i-in his London suites, you know, he picks the posh bits. There are no tenements (audience laughs) glimpsed in any of his London music. And I think, ahoh, this is the closest I feel to a sort of tinge of regret. Melancholy in the last movement. It has, it has, it has a faint aura of sadness, I-I’d say.”
John recorded Eric Coates’s entire London Everyday suite back in January and Chandos just released the album. “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 actually 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.
I started collecting these Moments after getting right annoyed, not when I first heard my beloved Geordie lad John Wilson cheerfully dismissing Oscar Hammerstein II’s lyrics as being “needless”, not after the 2010 BBC Proms (an R+H tribute) or even the 2017 BBC Proms (Oklahoma! for God’s sake), but later on when I read about John in Brighton trying to conduct a sing-along with his concert audience in “You’ll Never Walk Alone” the way Liverpool soccer club fans like to sing it when they’re winning—a song cue I HATE HATE HATE and would like to strangle the group responsible, Gerry and the Pacemakers, for.
The rule for bringing up a Rodgers & Hammerstein song in a Moment is simple: You sing it spontaneously—knowing the words and understanding and conveying its sentimental message—at the right moment. You have to read the moment, John. In the Jack Benny scene the humor is clear because everybody knows the words to “Getting to Know You” and everybody knows about Jack’s musical vanity vs his excessive courtliness toward pretty talented women; in the Cheers scene, Diane’s song cue is truly meant to comfort and inspire, and so makes for a genuine moment for characters and audience together; in 3rd Rock, well, “Oklahoma!” is just the ultimate rouser. You don’t even have to sing it well. (So a much better sing-along song actually.)
So it kind of heartens me, John, that you won’t be going back to mangling The Great American Songbook for awhile. Here’s hoping you take a long vacation in Bermuda, my Tyneside darling. Get a tan, get laid. And when you come back, commit yourself to the orchestral repertoire you do best.
But like I said earlier, I was already familiar with the fact that Mamoulian had directed Carousel and Oklahoma! on Broadway. So when he finally started to chat me up more familiarly, after a few weeks of my just coming in every weekday morning and answering his phone, opening his mail—unpaid bills, media people from all over wanting interviews, a few lines from old friends like Armina Marshall…Paul Horgan…Pamela Mason…Ray Bradbury—balancing his checkbook, reassuring Zayde on the intercom over and over that Henry their handyman hadn’t gone home yet etc etc, and basically fooling around during the many dull spots in the day (which is how I ended up playing the Waltz from Carousel to myself on the actual legendary Richard Rodgers piano), it was easy to follow The Old Man’s train of thought because I already knew a lot about the original production of Oklahoma!
“You know, Agnes…” he started right off the bat one day, and we both immediately understood who he was referring to: Agnes De Mille, the choreographer for the original 1943 production.
I sat up attentively, pen in hand, ready to take dictation. My main duty for Mamoulian was supposed to have been as amanuensis for his memoirs, after all. At least that’s what the temp agency had told me. Although they didn’t say amanuensis.
“No, put your pen down and listen!” he ordered. He was, in the weeks and months to come, going to say that a lot.
BBC’s resident singer/interviewer Clare Teal welcomes Proms stalwart and all-around “shouty scary” (her description) conductor John Wilson to the studio to talk about his new CD album Cole Porter in Hollywood and his orchestra’s 2014 tour, as well as spin a few swing platters, none of which we hear in entirety. Toward the end of the interview John Wilson Orchestra drummer Matt Skelton rips through “Begin the Beguine”.
Clare Teal and Conductor John Wilson, 28 September 2014. Above John and Clare: Pete Townshend sings “Begin the Beguine“.
“Begin the Beguine” is a song written by Cole Porter (a song is music with WORDS John, you know?) who composed it at the piano in the bar of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. The beguine comes from the Caribbean; it’s a combination of French ballroom dance and Latin folk dance and was popular in Paris at the time Porter was writing.
The song is notable for its 108-measure length, departing drastically from the conventional thirty-two-bar form. Where a typical standard popular song of its time was written in a fairly strict 32-measure form consisting of two or three eight-measure subjects generally arranged in the form A-A-B-A or A-B-A-C, “Begin the Beguine” employs the form A-A-B-A-C1-C2 with each phrase being sixteen measures in length rather than the usual eight. The final C2 section is stretched beyond its 16 measures an additional twelve bars for a total of 28 measures, with the twelve additional measures providing a sense of finality to the long form. The slight differences in each of the A sections, along with the song’s long phrases and final elongated C2 section at the end, give it unique character and complexity. The fact that the song’s individual parts hold up melodically and harmonically over such a long form also attests to Porter’s talent and ability as a songwriter.
Porter reportedly once said of the song, “I can never remember it—if I want to play I need to see the music in front of me!” Alec Wilder described it in his book American Popular Song: The Great Innovators 1900-1950 as “a maverick, an unprecedented experiment and one which, to this day, after hearing it hundreds of times, I cannot sing or whistle or play from start to finish without the printed music”.
Pete Townshend “Begin the Beguine” Cole Porter, words+music Another Scoop (1987) Pete Townshend Catalog
When they begin the beguine It brings back the sound of music so tender It brings back a night of tropical splendor It brings back a memory ever green
I’m with you once more under the stars And down by the shore an orchestra’s playing And even the palms seem to be swaying When they begin the beguine
To live it again is past all endeavor Except when that tune clutches my heart And there we are, swearing to love forever And promising never, never to part
What moments divine, what rapture serene Til clouds came along to disperse the joys we had tasted And now when I hear people curse the chance that was wasted I know but too well what they mean
So don’t let them begin the beguine Let the love that was once a fire remain an ember Let it sleep like the dead desire I only remember When they begin the beguine
Oh yes, let them begin the beguine, make them play ‘Til the stars that were there before return above you ‘Til you whisper to me once more Darling, I love you
And we suddenly know what heaven we’re in When they begin the beguine When they begin the beguine
It was a late morning about six weeks into my work assignment and The Old Man hadn’t arisen yet, so there I was in the salon with nothing to do except quietly wait for his appearance and his orders for the day (which letters to answer, which bills to pay, which people to call, etc) before getting down to the primary purpose of my being there, which was, in the agency’s words, “to assist Mr Mamoulian in the writing of his memoirs”. None of that memoir writing actually did transpire in the nearly nine months I was with him, other things did, but let’s not jump ahead. Unsupervised, I was forbidden to handle/read books from his voluminous library, but you know what? He never expressly told me not to play the piano, that big black shiny intriguing baby grand in the middle of the room, and I couldn’t resist. Could you?
There wasn’t a sound coming from any part of the house, although I could faintly hear Henry the daily handyman moving his wheelbarrow out in the yard. I’d had enough of examining in painstaking detail the boring watercolors and Russian icons on the wall. I sat down on the bench.
Sense memory kicking in… At that point it was the closest I had gotten to this humongous piece of furniture. I remember the smooth feel of the wood as I ran my fingers on it, gently lifting up the fall board to get to the keys. The piano was a Steinway. That is, I remember it as a Steinway, because I don’t remember it not being a Steinway. I put the fingers of my right hand down in place and began, ever so softly, to tap out the first tune that came into my mind, which happened to be the waltz from Carousel. Three, four bars in I thought I heard a rustle from the back of the house and stopped cold, put the fall board down and stood up.
This was the first time my eye was caught by something on the right side of the music rack, some sort of writing actually carved into the wood of the music shelf that lay flat in the cabinet of the piano. It was in cursive—and it was a name:
It still gives me goosebumps to remember I actually did that. When The Old Man finally did get up an hour later, I was sitting back at my desk in his alcove-cum-office, pretending to read one of the cheap Hollywood magazines I brought to pass the time, although my mind was still on the bars I’d played and where the bars were going musically, and I think I was humming. I must’ve been humming. Because as he came into the alcove I heard Mamoulian exclaim, “Hey, that’s from Carousel.”
I looked up. Caught! I was about to apologize when he spoke again, this time it seemed almost wistfully. “You know, I directed that.”
I said softly, as if it were an apology, “I know.”
At that moment our relationship started to take a different turn.
I’m still finding it mighty strange that John was born on the same day as my father’s final birthday, in 1972—on the 25th of May, which would make them both Geminis—but somehow it starts to make sense: There’s John of the BBC and Eric Coates and Ralph Vaughan Williams and the tra-la-boomy-boom that makes up English music; and then there’s John of the big-shouldered swaggering sweating bombastic vibrant American tune book. One (when he plays it well) makes me want to cook him a nice lamb stew with pearl onions swimming in the rich gravy; the other (again, when he plays it well, which is almost always) makes me want to—well, I was in The Business, you know, use your imagination.
Low Fell Lad Makes Good. Above: the Arlen-Kohler standard “Get Happy” was written for Ruth Etting but popularized by Judy Garland in the film, Summer Stock (MGM, 1951).
Only don’t be too sure which is which. Like I said, John almost always plays the music of his own country and heritage well, with a deep feeling that’s irresistible; whereas when he works out the great American tunes it turns out more often to be hit-and-miss, with many many many more misses than hits.
But oh! When he does hit!
When bonny John and his orchestra play “Get Happy” or “The Trolley Song” or “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” or the MGM Jubilee Overture—or the absolute best of the lot, “Slaughter On Tenth Avenue“—it’s total heaven, and I’m not the only one to say this. Subtlety is not this lad’s forte when it comes to the American popular repertoire. But when John goes big, bright, busy and loud when the number actually calls for it, screams out for it, it’s so damn satisfying when he does it and does it brilliantly that I want to—how can I put this?—do something for my darling in gratitude…make him a nice meal…fatten him up a little… (Ess, kind, ess!)
For right now, though, I’ll settle for a natter on a quiet afternoon with you John, rather not in London, maybe when you get up to Gateshead again, mi vida, back to The Angel of the North…
I love watching how Lockhart, official Guest Conductor of the BBC Concert Orchestra, scrupulously keeps in sync with not just his orchestra but with his soloist. It’s also a delight to watch at the beginning of the clip Lisitsa curtsying almost shyly to leader Cynthia Fleming.
Valentina Lisitsa, who started out as a YouTube sensation 12 years ago and is now counted as one of the foremost keyboard interpreters of the Eastern European Romantics, gives an intensely satisfying performance here of Addinsell’s “Warsaw Concerto“. The concerto was written for the movies—for, specifically, the 1941 movie Dangerous Moonlight, in which Polish concert pianist Anton Walbrook becomes a fighter pilot for the RAF, falls in love, gets amnesia, and composes some music. The movie, although a success from a propaganda viewpoint, was considered a potboiler by critics, and even the astute Anthony Burgess, who was an army sergeant and nascent composer himself at the time, looked down on the “Warsaw Concerto” as a cheap imitation of Rachmaninoff. Intellectual snobs have derided the piece, but it’s lingered in the memory for lo these many years, and is only now taking its permanent place in the Classic Repertoire.
For that we have to thank composer/film music restorer Philip Lane. It was to Lane that the musical estate of Richard Addinsell was entrusted and, like composer/orchestrator William David Brohn for Prokoviev’s Alexander Nevsky (Abbado with the LSO + full score here on YT) and my beloved John Wilson, Lane took on the task of reconstructing by ear written scores for film music whose manuscripts had been destroyed through carelessness or war. (Some suggest that the “Warsaw Concerto” was entirely the work of Addinsell’s orchestrator, Roy Douglas, who died in 2015 at the age of 107.) Addinsell’s—or Douglas’s—”Warsaw Concerto” was one of them. As Lane writes:
“The process of reconstruction does not get easier, but some films are more difficult than others. The biggest enemy is the combination of dialogue and sound effects over the music, and occasionally there are seconds of complete inaudibility when guesswork has to replace authenticity. The greater the composer, the more difficult the work, on the whole, since the melodic and harmonic language tends to be more adventurous. In the case of recent scores there are usually soundtrack CDs devoid of extraneous sounds to work from, but despite the change in status of film music, present day composers still mislay their scores. I have reconstructed music by Jerry Goldsmith, Randy Edelman and James Horner in the last year alone. If the composers are still alive I obviously encourage them to do the reconstruction themselves. So far, they have declined for various reasons.”
“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”
from Carousel (20th Century Fox, 1956)
Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II
Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies
Warner Classics, 2011
An impressive list of orchestrators went into the making of this film musical number, including Nelson Riddle, Earle Hagen (“Harlem Nocturne” for Ray Noble in 1940; then That Girl Theme; The Dick Van Dyke Show Theme; and The Andy Griffith Show Theme, with Herb Spencer) and John Williams; you can hear the layers and layers of gorgeous sound in bonny John Wilson and his Orchestra’s rendition.
This clip is from the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, 2010, but really, listen instead to the cut above from The JWO’s 2011 recording. It’s really ravishing.
“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says bonny John. Interview starts at 9:50. (Update 5 March 2019: Damn, the Beeb yanked this podcast! Will replace the link if they ever bring it back. To make up for it below are some downloadables.)
Included with the interview in their entirety: Met soprano Joyce DiDonato sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rodgers & Hammerstein); the famous barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gene de Paul, Alexander Courage), and “I Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that ineluctable John Wilson Orchestra way.
Above bloodily hardworking John: Kim Criswell, the Maida Vale Singers and The John Wilson Orchestra tear into the Gershwin brothers’ “I Got Rhythm”.
From a 15 June 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:
It’s rare, if ever, to hear a kind word said about James T Aubrey, the ruthless former CBS executive hired in 1969 to turn around the stuttering fortunes of the MGM movie studio. In a four-year reign he slashed staff numbers, cancelled many projects and sold off the company’s archive in a sale that, famously, included Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
“They had no intrinsic value,” was Aubrey’s icy comment at the time.
And along with that brutal act, incredibly, he also ordered the destruction of many of the film scores in the company’s archive, trashing music from legendary films including The Wizard of Oz, High Society and Singin’ In the Rain.
These gems might have been lost forever were it not for the passion and dedication of English conductor John Wilson, who for the past 15 years has dedicated much of his time to re-creating them.
Now he has re-scored some 200 separate numbers from MGM musicals from the 1930s to the early ’60s purely by ear, a task he was driven to largely out of necessity—he loves the music and wanted his orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, to play it.
“I had to do it,” he says simply.
He’s also quite frank about the tedium of minutely reconstructing each part. “First and foremost, I’m a conductor—it’s all I do really,” he says. “I don’t like writing music out but I have to. It’s a pain in the arse! It’s hours of toil.
“I do love hearing it back—I only do the numbers I think are really sensational—but sitting listening to four seconds of music on a loop for half an hour just to get one bass clarinet part—is that going to be anything other than just necessary?”
One might then expect Wilson to join the chorus of Aubrey critics but he is surprisingly generous towards the man who presented him with a lifetime’s work.
“It would be easy to say James Aubrey was a vandal but I think there were a lot of people around then who had no idea that this was worth keeping,” he says.
The pace at which the studio system turned out films left little time for those involved to consider their longer term significance.
“If you had said to anyone in the 1930s that what they were creating was art they would have laughed at you,” says Wilson. “It was entertainment designed to make a profit. Nobody was archively minded. A lot of the scores were an unfortunate casualty of that prevailing attitude. It would have been a case of, ‘Who wants a load of old crumbly pages’?”
Wilson’s passion for “good quality light music” sprang from listening to the TV and radio when he was growing up in Gateshead in the 1970s-80s.
After an extensive apprenticeship playing piano, arranging music and conducting for amateur dramatics, pantomimes and other productions he went on to study in London.
“By the time I arrived at the Royal College of Music at 18 I was fairly hands-on and practical,” he says. “There were never any divisions for me between David Raksin, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Strauss, Mozart and Brahms.”
Now he is working alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Andrew Haveron, bringing his favourite light music to Sydney audiences.
Haveron has led the John Wilson Orchestra since its inception.
“Andrew knows how to play this music better than anyone on the planet. That’s a real game changer,” says Wilson.
On a program that also includes music from Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and Star Wars will be Erich Korngold’s music for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.
Wilson’s face lights up. “It is,” he says, “the greatest movie score that has ever been written. I never get past how impressive it is.”
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.
Now….right. Because this is turning out to be thesecond 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.
This interview with my sweet John was put out into cyberland on the BBC Scottish Symphony Facebook page about a year ago. I couldn’t resist the temptation to transcribe it verbatim, in its entirety (that’s Coates’s “Dancing Nights” above my darling):
John: “I think a lo’ of the successful relationships between the conductor and orchestra are founded on mutual need, so find a group that really needs you, whatever level that is, whether it be a community orchestra, a community choir, an amateur orchestra, a brass band, a musical theater group, and bring what professional skills you have to them so that you can feed off each other. And all that time, never stop studying scores. You know, that’s the single most useful piece of advice to give to any conductor, is learn your scores. Practice your technique and learn your scores. Learning to read a score is really crucial, learning all the transpositions and being able to look at a score and immediately know what that’s meant to sound like, so that when things aren’t right, your ear picks them up and you can correct things quickly and efficiently. Which is another useful skill for a conductor to have, your ears sharpened to the extent that, that you’re able to solve problems. Your early years should be spent learning, you know, learning what it is that you need to do as a conductor… Get in as much practical experience as you can. I did, sort of, at least a decade’s worth of conducting before I dared to stand in front of a professional orchestra, which was the single most terrifying experience of my life.
“I had a friend who was organizing concerts in London and had a concert series and I was invited to conduct… And I worked with the BBC, actually with the Concert Orchestra, as an arranger, and they asked me to conduct one of their recording sessions, a couple of CDs [John’s first 2 recordings, both of Eric Coates, which were released when he was 25 and 26], and so they showed faith in me, and I was grateful for the opportunity… And I guess I was interested in areas of music that didn’t have many champions, so I got a bit of a head start on that front… Um, and happily I’ve never stopped working since. Now the only challenge (laughs) is to keep on working…
“But there are lots of different routes into becoming a conductor. As Barbirolli said, ‘Conductors are born and not made.’ So if you want to do it badly enough I think you’ll get through.”