From The Guardian, Fiona Maddocks: “The final work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, was one of the best, most alert and detailed performances you could hope for. Wilson, whose gestures on the podium are so unassuming he appears to do nothing more than beat time, had scrutinised the score, and asked probing questions about every familiar phrase, making it fresh. The Sinfonia of London, mostly a recording ensemble, is made up of leading principals or chamber musicians who want to play for Wilson. You can hear their devotion.”
MY BELOVED CONDUCTOR SPEAKS!
[Proms Director] David Pickard and I had a conversation about Sinfonia Of London’s connection in the past to English music, principally John Barbirolli’s famous record of English music for strings and it is as we know Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary so I thought opening with the Tallis Fantasia would be (a) good thing. And built that around I guess the English romantics and a fairly recent work by a living composer, Huw Watkins, who is Welsh and one of my favorite composers and a piece which he actually happened to write for Adam Walker, who’s our principal flute. The rest of the program con-sists of things you might know and you might not know. Walton’s Partita, which is a tour de force but it’s rarely done, and I think that’s because it’s so impossibly difficult. … Very difficult! One of the first violins came up to me and he said, “This is absolutely bloody murder!” We really sweated over it, and I—I hope to pull it off.
From 4barsrest.com, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists: The critically acclaimed big band and orchestral conductor (that’s my lad!) has accepted the role of Honorary President of the Yorkshire band Black Dyke. Chairman of the Board of Black Dyke Band Trustees, Trevor Caffull stated, “We are delighted that John Wilson has agreed to be our Honorary President and very excited with some of the initial thoughts shared regarding potential collaborations. In his early life, John was steeped in brass band culture. He has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm for the genre and we are very optimistic that this will evolve into a mutually rewarding association.”
About Fanfares: I fell in love with John the spring of 2018. The summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands at the Royal Albert; 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, for example 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 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, 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 also Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John’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 four 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.
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).
Ed Lyon tenor, Benjamin Appl baritone, and Susanne Bernhard soprano are the soloists. The Choir of Hanover and the Liverpool Cathedral Choir round out the voices. Orchestra is the NDR Radiophilharmonie, Andrew Manze is the conductor. 2018. Above: War Requiem, written in 1962 by Benjamin Britten.
I sang in the chorus of War Requiem around the time you were going on 1. It was the last concert of the Minnesota Orchestra’s ’72-73 season in Minneapolis; guest conductor was Kurt Adler of the Metropolitan Opera. (Don’t remember the soloists.) It was the greatest musical experience of my life. I know the Decca recording is out there somewhere, but the broadcast above from Radio Hanover is the closest I’ve found to the feeling I got being in the middle of all that gorgeous sound…
Which brings me to address yet another one of those sundry feelings I have about you, and have had about you, lo these several years: besides tenderness, gratitude, annoyance, and raging lust, just a trace of envy that you ascend to such an exquisite sonic plane so often…
But the envy goes when you bring it on home to us, which you always do. And then I’m filled with the pure joy of loving you.
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.
It happened one evening in July, 1973. I was 18. I had just gotten that job as night solfeggist at ASCAP only a couple of weeks earlier, which is in itself a very interesting story I’ll have to tell you one of these days. Only now let’s get back to me walking down Broadway from 63rd. I loved walking home to the Village after work on a summer evening, when all of midtown was still buzzy with life and good times. After the night shift, some of my fellow solfeggists would go across the street to O’Neal’s Balloon to drink with the fancy Lincoln Center crowd (here’s my own favorite table showing up in Annie Hall), but I got a bigger kick being below 54th with all the theater people. On this particular evening I was approaching 46th…and right there on the corner of 46th stood a really good-looking guy, tall and blond and nicely dressed, who seemed to be scoping out one by one all the passers-by. For some reason he lit upon me. He got my attention. Then he asked me if I knew where a good jazz club could be found, the way you might ask any passer-by about a mailbox or the way to the Empire State Building… I told him I was new in town. Then he suggested we (“we”!) buy a newspaper and sit down somewhere and check the listings together. Oh, I was game. My first New York adventure! We went across the street to Howard Johnson’s where he bought me a hamburger and told me about himself. He told me he was an agent. He’d just put his client on the plane that day—his client having just been on The Dick Cavett Show promoting his new film, a comedy-horror flick that’s now a classic—and he himself was going back to London in the morning. He told me his client’s name, which I recognized at once, and then he gave me his card, which I kept for years until I gave it to an actor friend who said he was “looking for a UK rep”… Then he asked me about myself, all the nice polite questions a man’ll ask you beforehand… But we also talked about show business, shows, show music. I told him I liked Man of La Mancha. Having found no jazz clubs worth going to that night, we left HoJo’s and walked over to 5th Avenue, where we strolled back to his hotel room at the St Regis. I was ready for anything, expecting nothing. Even when he pulled the line, “Let’s get out of these hot clothes, shall we?” with that gorgeous limey accent of his, I still wasn’t sure we were on the road to making it…until we started making it. At that point we hadn’t even kissed. But oh, how he made up for it! I wasn’t a virgin, but here was the first man I ever slept with who actually knew how to take his time pleasuring a woman. By the time I was under him, gazing down at the back of his incredibly sexy legs, an electric shock went through me, and for the first time in my life, I orgasmed. So that’s the story of my first New York hookup. We parted in the morning, wishing each other well, and I even made it back to the boarding house in time for breakfast. A perfect sexual encounter with a happy ending.
I’m telling you this, John, because what Michael Linnit made me feel that night is nothing compared to how you made me feel when you conducted Elgar’s Bach Fantasia in Sydney three years ago. I’m not kidding. I had just fallen in love with you when I saw you shimmy to a Jule Styne tune in some video… But this time (it was about 2 weeks later) there was only you and the music on the radio. I’m not even crazy about Elgar, I was waiting for your Prokofiev. But I was so keyed up—for the past couple of weeks I had been vibrating with love for you—that when a certain chord was played in the Elgar, a wave rolled through me, it was just so yummy… But that wasn’t all. As I lay there gasping, a little voice in my head went, You fool! Don’t you remember who’s doing this? And so I came again, this orgasm coming over me like a wave meant to drown…and I reached for you and knocked the lamp off the night table.
One day I’ll tell you about the other times (Vaughan Williams, Richard Rodgers). But I just wanted to let you know now how much you’ve meant to me, how much you still mean, even when you’re not wearing full dress.
A new production of The Turn of the Screw from Opera Glassworks, conducted by John Wilson at London’s Wilton’s Music Hall, was three days from opening in March 2020 when the first lockdown hit.
Director Selina Cadell and producer Eliza Thompson managed to rebook the cast of six singers and 13 musicians (from John’s own orchestra, the Sinfonia of London) for a run in October. But as weeks of lockdown turned into months, it looked like the project would be scuppered.
At which point, they rethought it for film.
The stage director and producer took the opportunity to experiment. “We weren’t interested in live capture,” says Thompson. “But we didn’t want the fact that it was intended to be a stage production to be lost.”
This influenced not just their approach with singers and a working method with camera director Dominic Best across the 6-day shoot, but also with the individual players forming John Wilson’s orchestra.
With the perfectly captured, decayed grandeur of its main, high-vaulted space dating back to 1859, the thrillingly atmospheric, Victorian-era Wilton’s Music Hall translates perfectly into the chilly, remote country house and garden in which the ghostly actions occur. Designer Tom Piper seized the opportunity to make the entire building a film set.
“Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t have all the musicians there together,” says Thompson. “So with the auditorium completely filled, becoming a Suffolk reed bed, we’ve planted the musicians throughout the film. As the story progresses, it becomes more anarchic.”
Cadell and Thompson have capitalised on the opera’s unique construction, individual scenes interspersed with an instrumental theme and 15 variations, to enhance the work’s filmic, non-linear nature.
The performance, still in the edit prior to being distributed via arts channel Marquee TV, is an equally impressive advance born out of Covid necessity. The vocals were filmed live, with the singers using microphones but without the orchestra. Instead, using monitors, John Wilson conducted them against live keyboards. Once the singers’ tracks were laid down, the orchestra was recorded to fit the singers’ interpretations, which is how it should be. ~David Benedict, from The Stage, 20 Nov 2020
*Catch a glimpse of the man I love on the monitor at 00:33 or here at rehearsal.
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—prime purveyors of the gay-gypsy-theatrical patois called polari—Julian and Sandy. Played of course by the inimitable Hugh Paddick and Kenneth Williams on Round the Horne. (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:
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.
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).
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.
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. “When William, at Eve” is from his comic opera Rosina (1782).
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 (entire film here), 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.
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.]