John Wilson Pinch-Hit Conducts Antonin Dvořák Twice in a Month and Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings with the BBCSSO in Glasgow, 19 November 2019

Back in October, 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.

Ann Not Antonin DvorakNo, not Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904) but the much-easier-on-the-eyes American-born film actress Ann Dvorak [same pronunciation] (b Anna McKim 1911-1979)—writer, BBC wartime broadcaster, and star of Pre-Code movies. Plus: Fellow Czech Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) conducts the Berlin Philharmonic in his illustrious countryman’s Eighth Symphony.

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 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. BBC Radio 3 is streaming the program for the next couple of weeks.

Mikhail Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila and Cabin Pressure (BBC4 2008 – 2014)

Here’s a sweet little doddle while I struggle over a few more involved postings (not all of them to do with my beloved John Wilson), which I hope to finish by the weekend. Cabin Pressure is one of the funniest, most cleverly-written sitcoms on BBC Radio and it doesn’t hurt that two stage/screen veterans with the most gorgeous voices and perfect comedic delivery are top of the compact cast list. I’m sharing this episode because it starts off with a demanding conductor and a paranoid bassoonist on board the tiny chartered airplane—and as always, of course, Glinka’s overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila.

Cabin Pressure.jpgStephanie Cole, creator John Finnemore, Roger Allam, and Benedict Cumberbatch perform Cabin Pressure for a live BBC studio audience. 

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.

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

Schelomo by Ernest Bloch, Played by George Neikrug (1919 – 2019) and the Symphony of the Air, Conducted by Leopold Stokowski

Counted among one of the greatest cellists in the Golden Age of String Players, George Neikrug has died, the day after turning 100.

Born in New York, at age 24, Neikrug met D.C. Dounis, a Greek pedagogue, whose revolutionary approach had a profound influence on the young cellist. “Trying to tell you about Dounis’s teaching is like asking me to tell you about a whole science like biology,” Neikrug said. “Dounis put very much emphasis on the most basic things I did like how I played a down bow and an up bow. He would show me how to play a down bow and an up bow and then I would play through a whole piece and he would sit there and practise with me. If he caught me doing one thing wrong I’d have to do it over again so I learned this tremendous amount of concentration…”

It was thanks to his studies with Dounis that Neikrug resolved to devote his life to teaching at schools including Detmold, Oberlin, the University of Texas-Austin and Boston University, whose arts faculty he joined in 1971.

In 1960, Neikrug performed “Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque“, the final work in Swiss composer Ernest Bloch’s 1916 Jewish Cycle.  with the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall and Leopold Stokowski, who described the cellist’s performance as “unforgettable”.

George Neikrug

Thanks to old friend, violist Vivi Erickson, for remembering her former Boston University teacher for me.

Andre Rieu and The Johann Strauss Orchestra Come Home to Maastricht, 2018

This is what I’ve been waiting for since last summer: a vidcomp of the complete annual summer concert of the greatest festival orchestra in the world, The Johann Strauss Orchestra, led by Andre Rieu, in the town square Vrijthof in their home town of Maastricht, The Netherlands, 7 July 2018.

Maastricht Andre Rieu JSO.jpg

From their rousing entrance to the tune of “76 Trombones” by Meredith Willson (that’s two l’s, thank you) to their invariable sign-off pieces: the Maastricht city anthem; Strauss Sr’s “Radetsky March”; “An der schönen blauen Donau” op. 314 (of course!); Shostakovich’s Jazz Waltz no. 2; “Can’t Help Falling in Love” (from “Plaisir d’amour” by Jean-Paul-Égide Martini, 1784); Austrian composer Robert Stoltz’s “Adieu, mein kleiner gardeoffizier”; and the Rocco Granata standard “Marina” (which I used to hear every year at the San Gennaro Festival in Little Italy, NYC), there’s two hours here of sheer delight, drinking and dancing. It’s always a special afternoon when I get to play the entire Maastricht concerts for me and Mister Grumble, I open a bottle and dance around the room and he just grins intermittently and drinks. Will write down the playlist one of these days.

Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez in the Film Brassed Off, Starring Ewan McGregor and Tara Fitzgerald (1996)

brassed-off.jpeg

As I remarked earlier, I will go almost anywhere my beloved leads me, and it was a remark of John’s that led me to this movie, which in 1995 was released to much acclaim in England but neglected and devalued in the States when it was shown here a year later. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John Wilson, Conductor, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”

In this scene Tara Fitzgerald is showing the lads her superior proficiency on the flugelhorn, which inspires their conductor—played by Lancashire-born Peter Postlethwaite—to consider taking the band on a competition tour and win some desperately needed prize money for their out-of-work members. There were a spate of British films in the 90s that dealt with the mass unemployment in Britain in the 80s that created a crisis in the culture of the north of the country a decade earlier, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot being two of the better known. Brassed Off is well written, well acted, has lots of very listenable music, and well deserves a larger audience.

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra and Conducted by Leonard Bernstein, Telecast on BBC1 22 January 1967

Performed at the 1800-seat Fairfield Halls in Croydon. If you look fast you’ll notice 2nd violins leader Sir Neville Marriner (at the time former professor at the Royal College of Music, recent founder of the chamber orchestra St Martin in the Fields, and to-be music director of the Minnesota Orchestra). Note that touching moment at the end when the members of the LSO refuse to rise, at Bernstein’s insistence, for the applause of the audience, instead remaining seated and applauding Bernstein themselves. Now that’s respect.

Bernstein Stravinsky

Just a passing thought, but watching this clip again recently I idly mused if this history-making performance might represent the ultimate secret aspiration of my bonny, my darling, my beloved John Wilson. Oh laddie. You’ll get there.