John’s pop fans in Britain have nothing to worry about—all the goodness of The John Wilson Orchestra (1994-2019) is now squeezed into his new/old/new group, the Sinfonia of London. Thank Kennedy Street Productions, who brought Barry Manilow and Gladys Knight to UK’s shores, for this shrewd spectacular run aimed at the 2023 Holiday Season. Now we’ll hear the rest of the movie music John’s been transcribing all these years.
More info to come as I find it. I understand as of 2 December 2022 tickets are already flying off the box office shelves.
Meanwhile here’s The John Wilson Orchestra‘s “signature” tune, the MGM Overture composed by Johnny Green; more info on that medley here.
There is so much to love in this Joan Crawford flick I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, it is my second-favorite Crawford movie (the first being Rainobviously, as I was in the 1980 version). Secondly, Oscar Levant. Oscar Levant! Novelist Nora Johnson’s object of teenage lust!
Thirdly, the B&W gorgeousness of the movie itself.
Love this cover. Actually, it’s kind of sophisticated. Look! It has the magic words Hollywood and John Wilson and nothing more need be said. Now I know what to get for Christmas for my other old lady friends.
Above: John conducts the Sinfonia of London in Frederick Loewe’s “Embassy Waltz” from My Fair Lady.
Hangover Square is a 1945 American film noir directed by John Brahm, based on the 1941 novel of the same name by English author Patrick Hamilton. The screenplay was written by Barré Lyndon (pseudonym of Alfred Edgar), who made a number of typical Hollywood changes to Hamilton’s pre-WWII black comedy novel, which sympathetically portrayed the denizens of London’s seedier bedsitters and pubs—the most notorious changes being 1) turning alcoholic protagonist George Harvey Bone into a classical composer-pianist; 2) turning down-and-out Hangover Square into a fakey-English-fakey-genteel neighborhood; and 2) setting the story in the early 20th-century, complete with tailcoats, corsets, chandeliers, the works.
The film was released in New York City on February 7, 1945, two months after its star Laird Cregar suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 31. His idiosyncratic career lives on in his films—The Lodger, most notably, and this one.
Above Cregar’s mad composer: Bernard Herrmann’s composition by a mad composer, played by Ben Dawson and backed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of my beloved John.
From FilmScore.com, 2011: John Wilson, the current enfant terrible of British conductors, was in Glasgow yesterday, Sunday 18th September, to conduct Music To Be Murdered By: a varied selection of Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, David Raksin, Richard Rodney Bennett and Constant Lambert film music with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
The Overture to All About Eve, Alfred Newman’s 1950 20th Century Fox classic film score followed and then pianist Ben Dawson joined Wilson and the BBCSSO to perform brilliantly the Concerto Macabre (John), the climax to Herrmann’s spine-tingling score from Hangover Square. The first act finale was Parade of the Charioteers from Ben Hur (John), Miklos Rozsa’s masterpiece—the orchestra and Wilson brought the house down with this rousing and spectacular performance.
More Herrmann started Part Two: Prelude-Murder-Finale from Psycho (John) . Just the right amount of brio and flair showed the appreciative audience just what a great conductor John Wilson is—he nailed this suite with consummate ease. He might have been channelling Bernard Herrmann here—one of the best performances of this music I have heard.
The afternoon was a great addition to Bernard Herrmann’s centennial—and the almost-full auditorium at Glasgow’s City Hall proved that the audience certainly appreciated Herrmann, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Wilson, whose love of film and film music gave us a performance to treasure—and remember. ~Alistair Kerr
Back in October 2019, on extremely short notice, my brilliant, bonny John Wilson substitute-conducted the state-run radio orchestra of Ireland, RTE, in a program of Brahms’s Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn, Robert Schumann’s Violin Concerto in D minor, and Dvořák’s quite listenable Symphony No 8 in G major.
Pinch-hitting for a sick colleague in Glasgow a month later, John conducted Brahms’s Haydn Variations, as well as Dvořák’s crowd-pleasing Symphonic Variations.
But it’s John’s performance of Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings that really made me sit up. Written by Benjamin Britten for his live-in sweetie Peter Pears—who sang it (above) in 1943—Serenade, with its unlikely musical combination, is a remarkably rich work, just the kind of music that John should be involved in at this point in his career. Of course he conducted it splendidly in Glasgow.
From The Herald, April 2017: What does Englishness mean in early 20th century orchestral music? Is there a discernible sense of national identity woven through the symphonies of Elgar, Walton and Vaughan Williams, the tone poems of Holst and Bax and Delius? And if so, does it mean the same thing when we hear it now as it did then? These are contentious opening gambits. In 2017, in Scotland, in Britain, in Europe, we should know better than to prescribe any essentialising nationalistic attributes to a disparate group of artists. Yet for conductor John Wilson there is something in it, just not in any flag-clutching way. “The connection I can make with national identity is that there’s something about the melancholy of this music which is actually at the heart of the English character,” says John. “That’s what I respond to. That longing for something that was probably never there in the first place. It’s a peculiar English romance.”
John Wilson is the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s new associate guest conductor, taking over the role that Andrew Manze held from 2010 to 2014. He’s planning to use his position as an advocate for 20th century English, as well as American, music. Next week he’s in Glasgow to conduct Britten’s Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings with tenor Ian Bostridge and horn player Christopher Parkes. Also on the programme is Elgar’s Third Symphony—a score that was unfinished until 1997, when composer Anthony Payne completed it using Elgar’s abandoned fragments. The aspects of struggle, doubt and nagging melancholy that linger just under the surface of so much of Elgar’s music are all there in the symphony, but they are made doubly poignant by the thwarted potential of a work that could have changed the scope of English orchestral music. For Wilson, Elgar’s finest moments equate to the musical clout of Beethoven.
Wilson is best known as a conductor of light music. He founded the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, when he was just 22, and since then his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing. On the one side, he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall, and on the other, his attention to detail and the calibre of the musicians in his hand-picked band (including BBCSSO violinist Greg Lawson) have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy and camp. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to nearly 25 years of period-performance championing by Wilson.
By branding his specialist orchestra with his own name, Wilson designated which repertoire he would be most widely associated with. Yet although he will always stand up for light music, in his various other conducting ventures he’s keen to emphasise that his passion extends to other repertoire. “I didn’t study MGM musicals at the Royal Conservatory of Music, I studied conducting,” he says. “I got a reputation for doing light music because that got all the publicity, but really light music was my dessert.” He smiles. ”I’ve always taken dessert seriously. As Karajan said, ‘light music was my medicine.’”
Wilson was born in Gateshead and grew up without anyone telling him what qualified as proper music and what should be considered naff. “The whole light music repertoire belonged to a couple of generations above me,” he told me. “This was the music they danced to, courted to, got married to. A lot of people have a nostalgic connection to it. Some of my professors were sniffy because they were too close to it, because it was the pop music of their youth and therefore something to be scorned at, but that doesn’t exist for my generation. We can see that a Cole Porter song is as serious in its craft as a Brahms symphony.”
Besides his admiration for the BBCSSO’s musicians (“am I allowed to say they are even better than I remembered? These dazzlingly good string principals”) Wilson says he was drawn to his new Glasgow position because this orchestra’s management never pigeonholed him as an MGM guy when others in the industry did.
“I first conducted the BBCSSO donkey’s years ago”—it was 2002—“doing light music and Christmas classics, that kind of thing. Then they kept asked me back to do interesting work that reflected my musical development. They weren’t always trying to shoehorn me into what everyone else thought I did exclusively. As I broadened my repertoire, they were happy to let me explore that. That’s why the relationship has lasted and why I’ve kept coming back.”
Now he’s looking forward to regular Glasgow visits for radio broadcasts and recordings for the Chandos label, starting with the music of Richard Rodney Bennett: “There’s a whole body of really eloquent fine music there that needs recording,” he enthuses. Next season his concert programmes include Elgar’s Cello Concerto and Walton’s First Symphony; Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the Third Symphony by American composer Roy Harris. In past interviews he has told me that his Desert Island Discs choices would include the Elgar symphonies, the Vaughan Williams symphonies and possibly American music by Copland, John Adams and Harris: next season he’ll be doing well by his wish list.
And, of course, there is next week’s billing of Elgar and Britten. “I can’t speak for anyone else,” Wilson says, “but I play these English programmes because I think that English music needs advocates. For years it was the province of a handful of English conductors, and when they died it went a little bit into the wilderness. I’m keen for it to come out of its old-fashioned straight jacket and to be seen for what it was, which was the flowering of a national school. It’s not just pretty pastoral wanderings.”
“Oddly enough,” he adds, back on the national identity train of thought, “some of the occasional pieces of Walton or Elgar might carry political implications, but they were never meant to be the great music of these composers. These were world composers and they knew it, even if the world at the time didn’t. They expressed global human sentiment. Vaughan Williams is a towering figure in terms of the great human statements—his Ninth Symphony and Sea Symphony are blazing visionary works for all of humankind. There’s a certain amount of reclaiming that needs to happen. There you go: does that amount to a mission statement?” ~Kate Molleson
If you can get over to Belgium, this’ll be almost as good as the The John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms. Performing at the 5 year-old, acoustically perfect, 2000-seat Queen Elisabeth Hall in Antwerp, the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra under John’s baton will be offering a Saturday evening filled with old favorites:
A weekend doddle before I start the big book. The first day I went to work for Mamoulian, he asked me outright if I knew any of his movies. I told him yes, this one. Which all of you probably know like I do, from TV. (Catch it here.)
After Kevin (whose family attended Mass at the same church in Wilmington as Joe Biden’s) took me to this Jules Feiffer-penned movie playing at a local Manhattan arthouse he had me re-enact it. We kind of looked like this. Oh, I got him there.
Louise: I don’t think we’re going to have any trouble tonight. Jonathan: You don’t? Louise: No, I don’t. Jonathan: Are you sure? Louise: You wanna bet? Jonathan: How much? Louise: A hundred? (he takes bill from pocket, gives to her; she puts it away) Jonathan: You sound pretty sure. Louise: You’re a kind of man…why shouldn’t I be sure? Jonathan: What kind of man am I? Louise: (slowly, seductively, kneeling between his legs) A real man. A kind man. I don’t mean weak kind the way so many men are. I mean the kindness that comes from an enormous strength… From an inner power so strong that every act, no matter what, is more proof of that power… That’s what all women resent. That’s why they try to cut you down. Because your knowledge of yourself and them is so right, so true, that it exposes the lie which they, every scheming one of them, live by. It takes a true woman to understand that the purest form of love is to love a man who denies himself to her. A man who inspires worship. Because he has no need for any woman. Because he has himself. And who is better, more beautiful, more powerful, more perfect… You’re getting hard. More strong, more masculine, more extraordinary, more robust… (smiling) It’s rising. More viral, dominating…more irresistible… (happy laugh) It’s up. In the air.
When you dine at a fancy dinner party, a common practice is to “cleanse the palate” between courses with a simple satisfying sweet, like lemon sherbet. Well, that’s what the music of Bob Rafaelson’s creation, The Monkees, is to my sessions of listening+studying music at the table of my beloved English conductor John Wilson: lemon sherbet between John’s more complex courses of Tchaikovsky or Ravel. My personal jukebox:
NOTES: 1) Now isn’t this THE quintessential Laurel Canyon Sound? 2) Music and lyrics by Boyce & Hart (“Last Train to Clarksville”); Carole King & Gerry Goffin (“Pleasant Valley Sunday”); Neil Diamond (“A Little Bit Me”, “Love to Love”); Mann & Weil (“Shades of Gray”); Carole Bayer Sager & Neil Sedaka(!) (“When Love Comes Knocking”); Ben Gibbard (“Me and Magdalena”); Mickey Dolenz (“Randy Scouse Git”) and Mike Nesmith (“Circle Sky”). 3) “Circle Sky” is from Head, that trippy 1968 Monkees movie produced by Bob Rafaelson, written and directed by Jack Nicholson(!!!) and available on YT. 4) As you can read from the above titles, I never got over my special crushy (though surprisingly nonsexual) affection for Davy Jones (“A Little Bit Me”, Love to Love”, “When Love Comes Knocking”).
Which brings us to the Bob Rafaelson-Carole Eastman classic, Five Easy Pieces, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary in September. If you want to talk about The Alienation of The Artist, this film is the perfect jumping-off place. Solid, solid script, one of the best to come out of 70s Hollywood. And then of course Jack Nicholson. A good geeky essay by filmmaker Kent Jones on Five Easy Pieces exists at Criterion.
Born Isaac Cozerbreit 8 May 1893 in London, died 7 September 1978, Findon Valley, Worthing, Charles Williams was one of Britain’s most prolific composers of light music, and was also responsible for numerous film scores. During his early career as a violinist he led for Sir Landon Ronald, Sir Thomas Beecham and Sir Edward Elgar. Like many of his contemporaries, he accompanied silent films, and became conductor of the New Gallery Cinema in London’s Regent Street. He worked on the first British all-sound film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, from which followed many commissions as composer or conductor: The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), Kipps (1941), The Night Has Eyes (1942), The Young Mr Pitt (1942), The Way To The Stars (1945; assisting Nicholas Brodszky, who is reported to have written only four notes of the main theme, leaving the rest to Williams), The Noose (1946), While I Live (1947) from which came his famous “Dream of Olwen“, and the American movie The Apartment (1960) which used Williams’s “Jealous Lover” originally heard in the British film The Romantic Age) as the title theme, reaching #1 in the US charts.
London publishers Chappell established their recorded music library in 1942, using Williams as composer and conductor of the Queen’s Hall Light Orchestra. These 78s made exclusively for radio, television, newsreel and film use, contain many pieces that were to become familiar as themes, such as “The Devil’s Galop” (signature tune of Dick Barton, Special Agent and here conducted in 2005 by my beloved John Wilson), “Girls In Grey” (BBC Television Newsreel), “High Adventure” (Friday Night Is Music Night) and “Majestic Fanfare” (Australian Television News). In his conducting capacity at Chappells he made the first recordings of works by several composers who were later to achieve fame in their own right, such as Robert Farnon, Sidney Torch, Clive Richardson and Peter Yorke.
Barbara Stanwyck was 32 and a box-office star when Paramount contract player William Holden, 21, was personally cast by director Rouben Mamoulian as the lead in his film based on Clifford Odets’s Broadway melodrama of art vs fleeting fame and riches, Golden Boy. Holden was nervous, awkward, and about to be replaced when something about the young player touched Stanwyck’s heart. She took him in hand, coached him personally and kept him from distractions (like studio publicity)…
Thity-nine years later, at the Oscars Holden had this to say to the world:
Above Holden and Stanwyck: There are only a few genuine moments in the history of the televised Academy Awards. This is one of them.
Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, it makes me happy to be in your audience and I don’t require you at all to be in mine—mostly because, as Mister Grumble just pointed out, my flicks would probably give you a heart attack. It also makes me happy that you’re going to be concentrating more on the Classic Repertoire this season, although it means leaving your faithful John Wilson Orchestra fans for a time—and only because when you’re not playing American film music, you’re not on the podium making the kind of quasi-witty comments that would make even me wince, and I used to be Arthur Godfrey’s gag man back in the fifties.
Now, Voyager (1942): Bette Davis as brave Charlotte Vale and Paul Henreid as her handsome weenie of a lover in this BBC2 Saturday Afternoon Movie I’ll bet John saw once upon a rainy day when he was a kid and couldn’t make head nor tail of, except for the music. Above: That’s my beloved John conducting the Sinfonia of London in this Max Steiner score, including the Warners Bros studio theme, which Steiner also wrote. Orchestration by Hugo Wilhelm Friedhofer.
On that note, I just want to let all of you know that I realize it’s not hard to find me. Really. I’m in the IMDb. I don’t even have to fill you in on what my screen name is because IMDb seems to have switched pretty much every one of my credits back to my legal name anyway, so it would be kind of pointless… All right. It’s Simona Wing. My castmates in my first movie, Dork & Sindy aka Playthings, gave it to me, and I consider it quite a lagniappe. Mister Grumble used it for my character’s name in his first novel (Tales from the Last Resort, Brave New Books, 2002) and no one has been able to get better use out of it since.
I have pleasant memories of that shoot. For one thing, it was shot in Marin County. In Sausalito! In a house overlooking the Bay. Do you see in that pic (click Sausalito) those houses up in the hills? The white house above the red roof, that’s where we shot.
For another thing, Craft Services was fantastic. You could graze all day.
And it was a friendly, clean shoot. Does anyone here who saw the flick remember what I was wearing before the guy in sunglasses stripped me naked, threw me into the hot tub and started chewing on my behind? That white blouse, that long black skirt, those pumps? That was my secretarial outfit, the one I wore a few months earlier in Beverly Hills when I worked for Rouben Mamoulian. Practically every day, I was that poor (took Sunset bus to foot of Schuyler Road, got off, wearing sneakers climbed hill, at Mamoulian’s door removed sneakers, put on pumps which I carried in my handbag). I remember I had one line which has since been coming back to me regularly, because whenever I run into an occasional fan, he (and it’s always a he) tends to quote it to me:
Now, you have to be a real Saturday Night Live geek to recognize that line, and I’m not going to decipher it for you. But I suppose this showed people I could do voices, because I got a lot of work from this film, almost all of it involving fakey foreign-sounding accents. Like Fatima, woman of Borneo, in the softcore version of Sadie Thompson aka Rain by Somerset Maugham. I’m not kidding.
Val: I love him anyway. I adore him! You can tell the whole world if you want to that I, Valerie Campbell Boyd, love and adore the great and beautiful and wonderful Henry Orient, world without end, amen. (to Marian Gilbert, shows album cover with Orient’s face) Isn’t he absolutely divine?
Marian: He really is cute…but I thought you said he needed practice.
Val: Oh Gilbert, have you no soul? Of course he needs practice. Especially on the scales. (moans) But this is LOVE, Gil! (sinks back on bed holding album) Oh, my dreamy dream of dreams! My beautiful, adorable, oriental Henry! How can I prove to you that I’m yours?
Novelist/screenwriter Nora Johnson had an intense teenage crush on Oscar Levant, hence the cute name for Valerie’s true love. From The World of Henry Orient (United Artists, 1964). The enormously inventive and amusing Elmer Bernstein score is represented here by the sweet Main Title above.
I must’ve seen this movie four, five times when it first came out, when matinees were cheap, and what kept calling me back—besides the lovely, lush, immersive experience of just sinking back into an engaging and sensually-satisfying film in an air-conditioned theater in the middle of smelly, sticky, hot Manhattan—was, of course, the music. I really, really dug the score, just like I really dug the score of Walton (mostly)’s Battle of Britain (@1:20), a few years earlier, and went back matinees to go hear it again and again. Which doesn’t mean I like all of Richard Rodney Bennett; I think I’ve gone to almost every other movie he did a score for and can’t remember the music to any of them.
But this one I could whistle for years, decades, afterwards, and the only thing that recently brought it back to mind was—yes! yes!—falling in love with my bonny conductor John Wilson. Because of his association with Bennett, you see. Oh, they owned a house together or some such relationship [download PDF of Feb 2020 issue of Gramophone here], but that’s not what I’m talking about. Back when John was 28, he and Bennett—and The John Wilson Orchestra!!!—got together to record, as I mentioned in an earlier posting, an abomination called Orchestral Jazz. So I’m figuring that anything my bonny lad knows about jazz has to’ve come from this guy, and the trouble is, I really can’t find anything that would lead me to believe Bennett knew anything at all about jazz, except that he once partnered with jazz singer Claire Martin, and she’s the real thing.
Directed by Sidney Lumet, whose first film was about another dozen people meting out justice, 12 Angry Men (United Artists, 1957). Above Jean-Pierre Cassel: “The Orient Express”, for which the composer heavily cribbed from Ravel’s “La valse”. Composer Richard Rodney Bennett on piano, Marcus Dods conducting the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, 1974.
But when it comes to purely orchestral music, Bennett shows that he knows a thing or two, Royal Academy graduate that he is. I’m glad, because his complete score for the film Murder on the Orient Express (Paramount, 1974) is probably the last example of a type of music they call over there English Light Music, which flourished on and off for about a hundred years since the 1870s, and is defined by easily accessible melodies and lush, decorative orchestration. In other words, music that’s delicious to hear and easy to digest. And while Murder has slightly campy touches, Bennett essentially knew who his audience was, and what they wanted.