20 November, 1999. On this day 20 years ago, at 6AM, my bonny John Wilson made his first appearance on BBC radio when the morning show played his 1997 recording for Chandos of “The Tempter”, a theatrical music piece by the nearly forgotten, once popular, Welsh-English composer Sir Edward German (1862 – 1936), whose reputation John in his career has done a lot to restore. No, really. I’m into theatrical music so I should have known about this chap years ago, not just about Arthur Sullivan. So thank you, John, for Edward German. (I think you do a nifty Nell Gwyn Overture too.)
John was 25 when he conducted this, and even then showed his flair with bright theatrical pieces.
How’s this for a coincidence? The man who gave my bonny John Wilson—then a struggling young conductor of 24—a wristwatch that belonged to his father was the same man who authored Rizal: Philippine Nationalist and Martyr, a well-researched, well-regarded Oxford Press bio of the legendary hero of the Filipinos, Dr Jose Rizal (1861-1896).* Something about you obviously touches the hearts of old men, John. The man’s name was Austin Coates (1922-1997), son of the English light music composer, Eric Coates (1886-1957). (Download his “Dancing Nights” conducted by my beloved John Wilson with the BBC Concert Orchestra here.)
Novelist Rizal modeled the heroine of his first novel, Noli Me Tangere, after his distant but constant lover. Maria Clara represents the Ideal Filipina: beautiful, feminine, loving, faithful, pious and true; she also gives her name to our traditional dress.
It was Leonor’s letters, letters filled with love, sweet reminiscences, and encouragement, that kept Rizal going throughout his years in Europe, first as a lonely medical student, then as a crusading novelist. I can feel the exquisite pain of their long-distance romance when I hear the song above.
*Pinoy alert! The complete TV bio-series in Tagalog, Illustrado, is on the GMA channel on YouTube and can be accessed here.
John: I think with Light Music generally one of its primary requirements is to ‘land in the listener’s lap’. It has to have a direct route to the listener’s emotions. You mention the Haydn Wood London Landmark Suite… In the 1930s from about 1933 onward, with Eric Coates’s London Suite, there was a sudden vogue for London—it was an illusory London, but it was very useful for these composers who wanted to express these sort of picture-postcard scenarios in music… Eric Coates did that very effectively with his London Suite in 1933. Now, why did people suddenly start copying Coates? It’s because it was enormously successful… It sold 400,000 copies of the 78 [record] and suddenly of course dollar signs started flashing in front of the publishers’ eyes.
And these three that we’re going to hear tonight are incredibly different individually. What should the listeners be expecting to hear?
John: The tunes are good. Particularly the last movement, “The Horse Guards—Whitehall” which was used as a signature tune for a long-running radio show [Down Your Way, 1946-92]… That’s obviously got a jaunty, horsey aspect to it… The first, “Nelson’s Column”, has a sort of quality nautical aspect to it… And the middle movement, “Tower Hill”, has a sort of thread of tragedy running through it. It’s never profoundly tragic, it’s all a kind of…as I keep saying earlier, a kind of picture postcard, a sort of 1930s-1940s sort of illusory version of what these places represent.
What are the sort of challenges you come across as a conductor when conducted and preparing music like this?
John: You know, there are a time when there was no division between light music and serious music. But with the advent of broadcasting and seaside orchestras there was a new market for composers who specialized in that field… And the challenge as a conductor is that you have to get off the page the immediacy of the music, the directness of the melodies and the rhythms, so I think on common levels of snap, articulation, fervor, all those things to bring these pieces to life… It’s, I think, from a player’s point of view, it’s often more than you might actually think. Part of the secret of this music’s success is that it never outstays its welcome. Which means as a player you have very little time to establish yourself. You’ve got to be in the zone and you’ve got to kind of deliver immediately. I mean, you know, I’ve been doing this stuff here with this orchestra for a lo’ of years, so they’re quite familiar with not only the style but what it is I like, so it’s all very happy music making.
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.
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.
The thing I first noticed first about this disc was the total commitment of the interpretations. A year later, a second volume appeared also devoted to the delightful compositions of Eric Coates. Once again I was struck by the deep understanding and respect show to these often unfamiliar scores, something which isn’t always the cast when this music is performed by orchestras and conductors who just do not seem to understand the idiom.
A little later I learnt that John was preparing a complete edition of the works of Eric Coates, so no wonder he is so completely “inside” this lovely music.
Born in Gateshead in 1972, John Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he graduated in 1995 winning all the main prizes, and also where he was awarded the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal, the highest award attainable by a student at the college.
In 1996 John formed The Sinfonia of Westminster, a group comprised of the pick of the outstanding musicians from leading soloists and chamber groups. But John also enjoys a parallel career conducting The John Wilson Orchestra, which is comprised of young musicians devoted to keeping alive the music of The Great American Songbook, including arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Robert Farnon, Paul Weston and Conrad Salinger. The orchestra has given concerts in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to great acclaim. He also appears regularly at Pizza in the Park and is the youngest conductor to broadcast on Radio 2’s long running Friday Night Is Music Night programme. John is also a prolific arranger himself, producing numerous orchestrations for film and television and he was also responsible for arranging all the music for the Hong Kong handover celebrations. The first two CDs to appear featuring The John Wilson Orchestra come from two different labels. The first one from Velvetone comprises 19 titles recorded at the CTS Studios in Wembley in 1998. Sarah Moule is the sensitive vocalist on eight tracks including “I Concentrate on You” and “Words Can’t Describe”, a little-known song once recorded by Sarah Vaughan. The rest is all orchestral, my favourites being “Skyliner” and “Cherokee”, both arranged by Neil Richardson, and Bob Farnon’s superb reworking of David Raksin’s classic “Laura”, which for me is worth the price of the disc alone!
John’s most recent CD is a first from Michael Dutton’s Vocalion Digital label. Previously this label has concentrated on re-issues of classic dance band and jazz recordings. They are now embarking on a series of original recordings made specially for the label, and John’s CD Orchestral Jazz is included in the first release. Using 24 strings, 4 winds, 5 rhythm and piano, this disc sounds superb and no wonder, featuring as it does on Richard Rodney Bennett playing piano on 4 tracks and providing arrangements for 8 tracks including “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “Lush Life” and “Melancholy Baby”.
The remaining arrangements are shared between John himself and Neil Richardson.
Listen out for Ian Moffat’s superb trombone, also Enrico Tomasso on trumpet and Luke Annesley doubling on sax and clarinet. This issue should be snapped up by all who enjoy the very best in orchestral jazz. If you enjoy Nelson Riddle’s recordings then you should love this CD.
One wonders what the future has in store for John Wilson. Personally I would welcome a disc devoted to the music of Robert Farnon, and what about a CD of the great arrangements of the unsung hero of MGM musicals, Conrad Salinger. But whatever, the name John Wilson will ensure that the great music of the twentieth century will be kept alive, played and presented superbly by a young master interpreter.
Film Music – Creditably conducted a program of “British Film Music” for the 2007 Proms; transcribed by ear complete MGM “lost” movie musical scores including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis and Singin’ In the Rain, resulting in 350+ (John’s count as of 2016, although his count confusingly goes up or down in successive interviews) pieces of programmable material (for the Proms, for example)—many of which are now of course part of The John Wilson Orchestra repertoire—while the complete scores are now available to orchestras worldwide for symphonic and live-to-screen concerts
Big Band/Big Swing – In his early 20s John cut his teeth on this type of music, starting with his stints conducting his Royal College (he’s a 1994 alumnus) / Royal Academy colleagues in the fancy palm courts of the hotels Grosvenor House and Royal Park (Times music critic Clive Davis gave the young students a “golden”—John’s word—review) plus Pizza On the Park, actually a swanky cabaret, and The Boatyard, a trendy restaurant in Essex; recorded 8 dance/swing albums for Vocalion; nominated for Grammy 2006 for the soundtrack of the biopic Beyond the Sea(which is really the first time I heard The JWO but didn’t know it)
Jazz – John has absolutely no idea what jazz is, yet recorded a thoroughly awful and dishonest album with Richard Rodney Bennett entitled Orchestral Jazz
Broadway and The Great American Songbook – DON’T get me started here. I’m blogging about this below.
All the rest is just Cantara trying to sort out where bonny John fits into her inner life. Which as it turns out is in every nook, every cranny…