Fanfares (Chandos, 2018), an Album by Onyx Brass, Conducted by John Wilson

A recent article mentioning John in 4barsrest, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists, reminded me of the fact that I never did get around to listening to and writing about my beloved conductor’s recording with the Onyx Brass, which I bought 2 years ago this month. I am listening now.

John Wilson & Onyx Brass 2Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where the Onyx Brass rehearsed and recorded this in 2017. Above John: Malcolm Arnold’s “Railway” Fanfare, my personal favorite. NOTES for Fanfares (Chandos, 2018) can be found here. There is no other instrument in a symphony orchestra that calls attention to the manmade-ness of its actual sound than the horn. Strings can mimic the human voice; woodwinds the sound of wind in the trees; percussion can conjure up a hail storm… But you tell me, can the sound of human lips vibrating a piece of metal sound like anything but what it is?

Well, two years makes a difference. I fell in love with John two years ago 2018, that spring. That summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble, and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.

So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle/Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, e.g. this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*

It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.

Which brings us back to this collection of Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.

The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era.  If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.

John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here (see above); as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and yes, Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John Wilson‘s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.

Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last two years.

*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Ralph Vaughan Williams’s “Greensleeves” Conducted by Sir John Barbirolli and Some Natter Between My Beloved John Wilson and Edward Seckerson; Plus Monty Python and Round the Horne

Sorry for my shaky handwriting but while listening to this I had a fantasy that gave me the giggles: John being interviewed by my favorite ohne palones, Julian and Sandy. (This more-than-usual musical episode of Kenneth Horne’s 1967 radio show also includes Rambling Syd Rumpo, the Fraser Hayes 4 singing off-key not on purpose, and the screamingly funny takeoff skit, “Young Horne with a Man”.)

Now John, I know that you know, and I know that you know that I know, that my long-distance lovemaking to you is being observed by a few; not many, just a few. So this rundown is for them, love:

In this very-recently posted pod chat with London-based culture maven Edward Seckerson, John talks about his idol, conductor Sir John Barbirolli; von Karajan; Leonard Bernstein; French romantic music of the early 20th century; conducting Massenet at Glyndebourne; reviving the Sinfonia of London; winning that BBC thingie for his Korngold Symphony (and confirming what I surmised in my review re his “austere” sound vs “chocolate sauce”); his other Korngold recording, the violin concerto, also with son vieil ami Andrew Haveron; Richard Rodney Bennett‘s compositional journey of self-discovery; and what we’re all waiting for, what’s up with The John Wilson Orchestra (seems like that psychic flash I had back in April has proven true).

Here are the main points I took away from this podcast: “What I do try to do as a conductor is carry my sound around with me… It’s almost—I don’t really feel comfortable talking about because you know music is basically a doing thing and not a talking thing… My deepest musical creed is wrapped up with how an orchestra sounds…” Which pretty much confirms what I’ve suspected these two years about him.

John, light of my life, fire of my loins, I respect your process.

John Wilson RijksmuseumAbove: John’s 44-minute podcast interview. Below, “Greensleeves” as we’ve all heard it on Monty Python.

Fantasia on “Greensleeves”
Ralph Vaughan Williams, composer
Barbirolli Conducts English String Music
RCA, 1963 first issue
The Sinfonia of London
John Barbirolli, conductor

23 JUNE UPDATE: Here’s Barbirolli again from that same album conducting Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia from a Theme by Thomas Tallis, which my beloved John Wilson will be conducting The Phiharmonia Orchestra in, in an online concert on 17 July.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Royal Gala at Windsor Castle for the Royal College of Music, May 2019

One little bad review doesn’t phase my bonny, bless him. On Thursday 16 May 2019, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, President of the Royal College of Music (RCM), held a special gala concert at Windsor Castle. The concert showcased some of the RCM’s most acclaimed alumni, including Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Sarah Connolly and Conductor John Wilson, performing alongside Maxim Vengerov, Polonsky Visiting Professor of Violin, and the talented young musicians in the RCM Chamber Orchestra. The evening included a performance of George Frideric Handel’s Overture to an English Opera (here played by the Little Orchestra of London).

Windsor Castle Gala 2019 news itemI’d know the back of that head anywhere.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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My Beloved John Wilson, RCM Alumnus, Conducts Fellow RCM Alumnus Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem with the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, November 2013

Recorded on 7 November 2013 in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall at the Royal College of Music in London.

John Wilson RCM Britten 2013Above John: I Lacrymosa 00:00 / II Dies Irae 09:22 / III Requiem Aeternam 14:56.

A passionate expression of the composer’s pacifism, penned amid the conflict of 1940, Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem is also a memorial to his parents. A powerful and enduring work, one of Britten’s most abiding from the earlier part of his career.

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Joan Sutherland Sings a Song by Composer William Shield, Local Swalwell Lad Made Good

Dame Joan was the one who got me interested in classical singing, if not doing it myself then listening to and appreciating it. This really tasty ditty comes from the pen of William Shield of Swalwell (which is right next door to my bonny John Wilson‘s childhood neighborhood of Low Fell), Gateshead, who rose to be the king’s Master of the Musicians and was buried in Westminster. From his comic opera Rosina (1782).

Wiliam Shield.jpg

Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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The Rio Grande by Constant Lambert, Broadcast Live from the Royal Albert Hall, 12 September 1959

A very nifty, lively, jazzy modernist piece written by Constant Lambert (The Who manager Kit Lambert’s dad) in 1927. Australian virtuoso Eileen Joyce, who famously played the heart-wrenching Rachmaninoff in the film Brief Encounter, is at the piano here. County Antrim-born Jean Allister, contralto soloist, joins her with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Chorus. At the podium is Sir Malcolm Sargent.

lambert piccadilly arcade

Composer-novelist Anthony Burgess, in his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (Burgess’s original name was John Wilson; his middle family name was Burgess and his confirmation name was Anthony) wrote,“Lambert, who admired Duke Ellington and proclaimed his harmonic roots in Frederick Delius (who in his turn had taken them from Debussy), was a fearless reconciler of what the academies and Tin Pan Alley alike presumed to be eternally opposed. I was present at that first performance, and so was my father. And, in 1972, on a plane from New York to Toronto, I found myself sitting next to Duke Ellington, who spoke almost with tears of the stature of Lambert, admitted that he had learned much from both Delius and Debussy, and expressed scorn for the old musical division, which had been almost as vicious as a colour bar. He had lived to see it dissolve and jazz become a legitimate item in the academic curricula.” [More Burgess on Lambert here.]


Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor: Jacqueline Du Pré, Cellist with Daniel Barenboim Conducting the London Philharmonic

du pre, barenboim
Jacqueline Du Pré (1945-1987) and her husband Daniel Barenboim—the most romantic, tragic musical love story of my generation

Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor, his last notable work, is a cornerstone of the solo cello repertoire. Elgar composed it in the aftermath of the First World War, when his music had already gone out of fashion with the concert-going public. The piece didn’t achieve wide popularity until the 1960s, when a recording by Jacqueline du Pré caught the public imagination and became a bestseller. This film recording is from a 1967 program from the BBC.

Free pdf of my memoir re the Gyllenhaals A POET FROM HOLLYWOOD here.
Free epub of my 2014 Hollywood-based comedy mystery COLD OPEN here.
Free pdf of my book JOHN WILSON: AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR here.

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