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.
I don’t know what I did to please the gods but on this 2020 October morning, somehow, I took a perfect screenshot of John conducting, while watching the (UK time) 7:30pm performance of the Royal Academy of Music (Finzi, Strauss). “Metamorphosen” is from his new album on Chandos.
Above my beloved John, who I’m pleased to have captured as crisply and revealingly as Robert Elswit with his pic of Jake and Stephen Gyllenhaal (Steve’s gift to me): Himself conducting the Sinfonia of London in Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” (Chandos, 2022).
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
6 September, 2021. Labor Day. (Bosses 2 – Labor 1) I suspect a few people in the UK might lately be visiting here as part of their Monday morning getting-into-gear ritual, so apologies for the lateness of this new posting, but I had to make the potato salad. Mister Grumble likes my potato salad.
Another reason for the delay: I needed to see what John was wearing for this radio concert, because the work clothes my bonny chooses to wear for any particular program always convey a meaning to me—so I had to wait for his picture (forget the bullshit reviews) to come out in The Guardian or The Independent… As you can see below, he was attired in a simple concert tuxedo, which I truly hope was comfortable. (Still wore his lucky cufflinks, though.)
Above: Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F, Conducted by John Wilson and played by the Sinfonia of London, BBC Proms, September 2021.
The importance of John Wilson’s white tie and concert tailcoat. This is what I couldn’t determine during the early days of my passion for John: Whenever he wore the tailcoat at the Proms conducting The JWO, his fancy showtunes orchestra, I wondered, was it because he was following in the historically deep tradition of maestros (Bernstein, Barbirolli etc) in dignified full dress…or was it just part of the show? So when John eschewed the tailcoat for his very important 4 September “Viennese” concert at the Royal Albert—where he could have so easily camped it up—this is what his choice said to me:
This music is serious. This presentation is serious. Spectacle doesn’t apply here. Sentimentality doesn’t apply here. Pay attention to the music! An assured, masterful bit of programming—not just some splashy entertainment, but a true, potentially life-changing encounter with Art. For only ten bucks a bottom-price ticket, I understand. I hope you Brits appreciate what you have.
Which brings us to the concert program. I don’t know the Berg so I’ll let that one alone, except to say the soprano has a nice strong tone. The Zemlinsky encore? You clever lad. Your Ravel waltz is as tight as when you conducted it at the Royal College, here even more ravishing coming from a full orchestra. I’d also get a kick reading your markings for Strauss’s Die Fledermaus Overture—have never quite heard those musical values brought out before. Very yummy.
The third movement of Erich Korngold’s Symphony in F. The Mister and I have exchanged a few strong words on this subject; however, since one cannot talk reason to a woman in love, I’m not going to include his remarks here. It’s a wonder that this single movement can bring out such contentiousness among people, even in someone like Mister Grumble, who wouldn’t’ve given a fig for Korngold if I hadn’t rediscovered Korngold through my wanton passion for conductor John Wilson and all the music that surrounds him. Even Leonard Bernstein and his protegee, John Mauceri, couldn’t agree: read my earlier post ”Leonard Bernstein Hears Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp for the First Time”… [going off to make dinner, spaghetti with chicken-tomato sauce, back asap]
Recorded at the Duke’s Hall, Royal Academy of Music, 2 July 2021. Found the donation window, incidentally. Back in January, 2020 after we heard John conducting them in Tchaikowsky I said to Mister Grumble, ‘That was as good as any small-city orchestra in the US. I’d’ve paid cash money for this,’ and darned if the RAM didn’t just make my life a little easier. Here it is.
O sieh, wie klar das Weltall schimmert! / Es ist ein Glanz um alles her / Du treibst mit mir auf kaltem Meer / doch eine eigne Wärme flimmert von Dir in mich von mir in Dich… ~Richard Dehmel
Look, how brightly the universe shines! / Splendour falls on everything around / you are voyaging with me on a cold sea / but there is the glow of an inner warmth from you in me / from me in you…
Above my beloved: Leopold Stokowski conducts the 1943, final and most popular composer’s edit of the string orchestra version of this exquisite one-movement sextet based on Richard Dehmel’s poem. (The 1924 version was conducted by Edward Clark of the BBC in Newcastle that year.) Find the Hollywood String Quartet’s version here.
It was not a revelation, I knew John was going to be wonderful and the orchestra was going to be wonderful. I’d heard the “Mars” part of Holst’s The Planets that he conducted in Leeds with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (see John above wearing the bright blue NYOGB hoodie) and was impressed with its energy. RAM trumpet Rebecca Toal (heard in Brett Dean’s “Komarov’s Fall”) had this to say about my dear one:
“John is particularly generous with his energy and he’s so committed. I think I’ve done one project with him before, and both times he’s just thrown himself into the projects. It’s so nice to have people come in from the outside and completely splash their energy everywhere and leave you feeling on a high and motivated, even after they’ve left.”
JOHANNES BRAHMS Variations on a Theme of Josef Haydn “The Philharmonia 75th anniversary CD box set contains some really thrilling performances from a dazzling array of soloists and conductors—Karajan, Giulini, Klemperer, Kletzki and Cantelli among them—but the ones I’m most fascinated by are the concerts Toscanini gave with the orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall in 1952 which provide a wonderful snapshot of the Philharmonia Orchestra live on stage in its first decade.” / John’s right on this one, can’t do better than Arturo Toscanini at the RFH in ’52 with the Philharmonia
MAURICE RAVEL Daphnis et Chloe Suite no 2 “Once it became apparent that we would all be spending our days at home, I decided to embark on a project I had been putting off for years:correcting all of the many thousands of errors in Ravel’s masterpiece, Daphnis et Chloe. I soon became thoroughly absorbed in this rather epic task and ended up completing a brand new edition of the whole ballet which I will be recording next year. Here’s the peerless Charles Munch conducting the Second Suite.” / Here’s Simon Rattle instead doing this ravishing Ravel suite with the Berlin Philharmonic
EDWARD ELGAR The Dream of Gerontius “I’ve been making my way through all 109 discs of the new Warner Classics Barbirolli box set—a conductor whose work I come back to time and time again. There’s a fervour and intensity to his music making that is utterly compelling and this legendary performance of Elgar’s greatest work has, for me, no equal.” / Elgar, a devout Roman Catholic, was something of a religious mystic and this is evident in his much of his work, no more so than in this looong, stately but yummy setting to Cardinal Newman’s musing on death and redemption
TEDDY WILSON Don’t Blame Me by Jimmy McHugh and Dorothy Fields “I love, love, love Teddy Wilson’s piano playing—I’ve had his solo piano discs on a loop for days…” / Nah. If you want to hear one of the greatest swing* pianists ever at his best, here he is doing “I Got Rhythm” by the Gershwin brothers
KEELY SMITH Cocktails for Two by Arthur Johnston and Sam Coslow “Songs—in all their guises(!!!)**—have always been at the centre of my musical life. The great American songwriters from the first half of the last century gave us so many treasures and I’d never want to be without them. Last week my trombonist friend, Andy Wood, reminded me just how great Keely Smith is.” / When I was a little tiny teeny girl, I thought listening to Keely Smith singing this lush Charles Trenet / Albert Beach songbook standard “I Wish You Love” on the radio was like walking through an enchanted forest
*I am astonished that John actually, correctly, described Teddy Wilson as a Swing musician rather than put him into the catchall Jazz bag, which I’d have expected him to do, considering who was his teacher. His teacher was Richard Rodney Bennett. My teacher (at CUNY) was YUSEF LATEEF (download his 1957 album Jazz Mood here in full).
**John, are you conflating song with melody, or what? Only asking as a humble member of your audience.
Before we get to what I think will be a nice and fair assessment of John Wilson’s 2020 recording, a word to some people.
I have always been aware of the tacit agreement that exists between my screen persona Simona Wingand her fans, but let me now take this apt opportunity to state my position clearly: You all have my blessing to do whatever you want with me in your fantasies.
Because whatever you want to do with me in your fantasies is nothing compared to what I want to do withJohn Wilsonin mine. So, go for it.
Now on to Korngold.
I didn’t realize this was still a thing in the music world, but apparently opinions continue to be strongly divided as to whether Erich Wolfgang Korngold—a true heir, by the way, to The Great Mittel European Romantic Tradition—deserves inclusion in the canon some snooty farts call the Classic Repertoire. You know, the one that has Bach and Beethoven and all those other cats. It’s no secret that when you mention the name Korngold, the average music lover’s first thought is of upmarket movie soundtracks (Anthony Adverse—The Adventures of Robin Hood—The Sea Hawk—Captain Blood) and likely never gets around to the fact that Korngold wrote, among other things, the most luscious symbolist opera of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt, in 1920, and a hell of a gorgeous violin concerto 25 years later:
So it seems like every generation there has to be one nut who comes along and says, Let’s run Korngold past the hoi-polloi again and see if he’ll fly—and if you think I’m talking about you, John Wilson, you’ve got a swelled head. Because the nut I’m talking about is the nut in the CIA. The anonymous nut who got The Company to fund an enterprise back in the early 70s called “The Golden Age of Hollywood Music” and hence to elevate Korngold to the status of Hollywood Royalty—but through his film scores and his film scores only.
But that story later.
We’re here right now not just to size up a new Korngold recording, but to honor the decades-long musical relationship of Andrew Haveron, violinist, former Leader of The John Wilson Orchestra, current Leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and conductor John Wilson, whose career in orchestra building started at the age of 22 and hasn’t stopped since.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, their latest Chandos release, was going to get my attention with or without the Winsome Lad of Low Fell anyway, as I’m a sucker for this particular style and era of music. But I was glad to learn about their actual friendship as well; for me it explains why the perfect communication that’s so evident here between Haveron and my John (and through him, to the estimable RTE Orchestra) has some of the magic of Barenboim+du Pré, back in the brief days when those two were cooking hot with Elgar.
This is soloist Haveron’s star turn: a warm, fresh, intimate—revelatory even—rendition of a piece that, let’s face it, is kind of like the “Nessun Dorma” of violin concertos. But this is John’s success too. So much of my bonny’s gift for conducting Korngold, as we know, has to do with his insistence on a technique his PR people call “shimmer” but is actually wrist vibrato on strings, a technique in fingering I learned about and taught myself when I was 14 because I liked the sound it made, although when the orchestra teacher put it down for sounding cheap and sloppy I quit it.
But I know the sound of shimmer and you do too. The John Wilson Orchestra practically patented it. John himself still calls for it whenever he conducts Tchaikovsky. It’s in all the high-toned movies of the 1930s (examples above). It’s also in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic film musical Love Me Tonight (complete film here) courtesy of Paramount’s musical director Nat Finston, who understood what he was talking about when, in a certain musical scene, he said he wanted “crying violins”. I could tell what he was talking about when he told me this story 46 years later.
Front Row: What’s so enthralling to you about the music of Erich Korngold?
John: It’s very much his own style… You hear two seconds of music and immediately you know it’s by Korngold because by the way he was 13 or 14 he had a fully developed late-Romantic Austro-German style and, you know, had it not been for the Nazis and the Second World War he would have continued to develop his operatic skills, his symphonic skills, and he would now be as established as Richard Strauss…
Front Row: What made you choose the particular pieces [for the Chandos recording] that you did?
John: I think the Symphony, Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, is the last great Austro-German romantic symphony and…it was written 1947 to 52, it took 5 years, and…I think it was the piece that Korngold spent, lavished the most time on. I think it was the piece that he felt was he felt he really had to write because it was a labor of love… And you know, he couldn’t get a satisfactory performance out of it during his lifetime because he was considered old hat…and in 1972 I think it was, it was discovered in the Munich orchestra’s library and the first recording performance given… And I just felt that the time had come for a revised sort of conception of this symphony of Korngold’s.
As I once pledged, I will go almost anywhere my beloved conductor John Wilson leads me; and so it was a remark of his that led me to this movie, which in the mid-90s was an estimable hit in the UK, though not so much here in the States. When asked by The Telegraph about his early musical influences, said John, “Brass bands. Coming from a working-class background, the tradition of amateur music-making was important to me…”
There’ve been a couple of other, better known (in the US) British films, The Full Monty and Billy Elliot (here’s Billy’s angry dance), which also address the economic/unemployment crisis in Britain that, back in the 80s, did its part to whittle away at arts education throughout the country, particularly in the north. Like I said, my beloved conductor’s remarks in recent interviews about his early influences started me thinking not only about his musical but general education growing up in Gateshead in the 80s. I’ll take this on in an upcoming post. The contrasts / similarities between his musical influences and school training—as a northern Brit through most of the 80s—and mine—as a midwestern American in Minneapolis through the mid 60s-early 70s—I find worth examining, and not just because I’m hopelessly in love with the bloke.
For now, this is what I take away from anecdotal evidence like Brassed Off and John’s childhood memories: The British, in general, seem to be more used to the sound of brass ensembles than Americans. Now, we like to think we know all about brass ensemble music because, being Americans, military marches and Sousa seem to stalk us everywhere we go in this great land of ours. But really, it’s not the same kind of music. I’ll discuss this in my review.
But let me just say this here: I will try to cut John a little more slack when it comes to his choices in orchestration for The Great American Songbook. I mean, if that’s really the way he hears it in his head…
Meanwhile, those of us who are still earthbound can treat our heads and ears to Oxford-trained harpsichordist Matthew Halls’s rendition of the complete Goldberg Variations of Johann Sebastian Bach (for which exists a cute story why it’s called that I won’t get into right now, although if you know/like the Variations you probably know it anyway).