An Evening of Eric Coates, Played by the BBC Philharmonic and Conducted by John Wilson, Salford, 8 January 2019

After he finishes his JWO “At the Movies” gig touring the isle with his eponymous orchestra, which consists of cracking waaay off-the-beam jokes between numbers about Now, Voyager (Glasgow’s The Herald deems his whippersnapper remarks “camp wit”!) and playing Fred Astaire’s ballet number from The Bandwagon in order to pay homage to Gene Kelly(!), my bonny gets back to business in Salford performing and recording a program of Eric Coates: The Merrymakers Overture; The Jester at the Wedding Suite, “Dancing Night”; Ballad for Strings; “I Heard You Singing” from 2 Symphonic Rhapsodies; and for the last number, London Everyday Suite (and you know what that means! It means “Knightsbridge”!! That farkochta earworm I can’t get out of my head!!!) Now for goodness’ sakes John, just play the music and ditch the fatuous pronouncements and the wisecracking. You’re at your best when you’re a musician and not some cheap showman.

John Wilson Vaughan Williams 2nd
At his best: John conducting the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no.2 (“London”), Birmingham, 2014.

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John Wilson Interview (with Music!) at the BBC Studios in Salford, 12 November 2018

“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says my bonny. Interview starts at 9:50.

Included with the interview in their entirety: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rodgers & Hammerstein), the famous barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gene de Paul, Alexander Courage), and “I’ve Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that inimitable John Wilson Orchestra way.

John Wilson Interview 2013

From a 15 June 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:

It’s rare, if ever, to hear a kind word said about James T. Aubrey, the ruthless former CBS executive hired in 1969 to turn around the stuttering fortunes of the MGM movie studio. In a four-year reign he slashed staff numbers, cancelled many projects and sold off the company’s archive in a sale that, famously, included Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.

“They had no intrinsic value,” was Aubrey’s icy comment at the time.

And along with that brutal act, incredibly, he also ordered the destruction of many of the film scores in the company’s archive, trashing music from legendary films including The Wizard of Oz, High Society and Singin’ In the Rain.

These gems might have been lost forever were it not for the passion and dedication of English conductor John Wilson, who for the past 15 years has dedicated much of his time to re-creating them.

Now he has re-scored some 200 separate numbers from MGM musicals from the 1930s to the early ’60s purely by ear, a task he was driven to largely out of necessity—he loves the music and wanted his orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, to play it.

“I had to do it,” he says simply.

He’s also quite frank about the tedium of minutely reconstructing each part.

“First and foremost, I’m a conductor—it’s all I do really,” he says. “I don’t like writing music out but I have to. It’s a pain in the arse! It’s hours of toil.

“I do love hearing it back—I only do the numbers I think are really sensational—but sitting listening to four seconds of music on a loop for half an hour just to get one bass clarinet part—is that going to be anything other than just necessary?”

One might then expect Wilson to join the chorus of Aubrey critics but he is surprisingly generous towards the man who presented him with a lifetime’s work.

“It would be easy to say James Aubrey was a vandal but I think there were a lot of people around then who had no idea that this was worth keeping,” he says.

The pace at which the studio system turned out films left little time for those involved to consider their longer term significance.

“If you had said to anyone in the 1930s that what they were creating was art they would have laughed at you,” says Wilson. “It was entertainment designed to make a profit. Nobody was archively minded. A lot of the scores were an unfortunate casualty of that prevailing attitude. It would have been a case of, ‘Who wants a load of old crumbly pages’?”

Wilson’s passion for “good quality light music” sprang from listening to the TV and radio when he was growing up in Gateshead in the 1970s-80s.

After an extensive apprenticeship playing piano, arranging music and conducting for amateur dramatics, pantomimes and other productions he went on to study in London.

“By the time I arrived at the Royal College of Music at 18 I was fairly hands-on and practical,” he says. “There were never any divisions for me between David Raksin, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Strauss, Mozart and Brahms.”

Now he is working alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Andrew Haveron, bringing his favourite light music to Sydney audiences.

Haveron has led the John Wilson Orchestra since its inception.

“Andrew knows how to play this music better than anyone on the planet. That’s a real game changer,” says Wilson.

On a program that also includes music from Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and Star Wars will be Erich Korngold’s music for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.

Wilson’s face lights up. “It is,” he says, “the greatest movie score that has ever been written. I never get past how impressive it is.”

Hollywood Rhapsody is at the Sydney Opera House June 16-18.

The MGM Jubilee Overture Arranged by Johnny Green, Conducted by John Wilson and Played by the John Wilson Orchestra

Since 2004, when John and his eponymous orchestra first played this reconstituted medley, by MGM’s best-known music director, at the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall, it has become sort of their signature piece which they’ve played all over the world, from Sydney to Berlin. I can’t imagine how John was able to transcribe the score directly from hearing this lusterless 1954 film short, but my darling has the gift of patience and commitment.

John Wilson MGM Berlin

One of those rare moments when John conducted without his baton, which slid out of his grasp but was retrieved seconds later by an alert string player. Berlin, 2016.

Here are the numbers (I’ll add the composers later): “Singin’ In the Rain”; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”; “Broadway Rhythm”; “The Last Time I Saw Paris”; “Temptation” (shades of Tony Martin!); “Be My Love” (shades of Mario Lanza!); “The Trolley Song” (with the Judy sound); “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (more Judy sound); “Donkey Serenade”; and “Over the Rainbow” (the Judy sound of all Judy sounds).

Deleted: 2 bars plus “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and John, this is something I mean to chat with you about over that bot’le a’Broon.

Joyce DiDonato and Alice Coote In Jules Massenet’s Opera La Cendrillon At the Met, 2018

Cheshire-born Alice Coote and Kansan Joyce DiDonato, both lyric mezzos, play Prince Charming and Cinderella in The Met’s production of Massenet’s whimsical opera.

DiDonato Coote Cendrillon

Actor/director Fiona Shaw’s production of La Cendrillon makes its Glynbourne Festival debut in August, 2019, conducted by John Wilson with Australian-American soprano Danielle de Niese in the title role. (Later on in the year De Niese will be starring, with Kelsey Grammer, in the first West End staging of Man of La Mancha in fifty-three years, produced by the man who was the first to bring me to climax when I was 18.)

Second Rhapsody by George Gershwin: Wayne Marshall, Piano; John Mauceri, Conductor, with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra

Premiered at Symphony Hall, Boston, on 29 January 1932, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Serge Koussevitzky, Conductor and George Gershwin, Piano.

Gershwin Second Rhapsody
George Gershwin
NBC-Radio Studios (with pickup orchestra?)

In November 1930, George and Ira Gershwin arrived in Hollywood to write the score for their first movie, Delicious. Besides the songs, George was asked to compose an instrumental piece to underscore a sequence where the film’s immigrant heroine wanders through a somewhat menacing Manhattan. In the end, only six minutes of what was originally entitled “Rhapsody In Rivets” was used but George, never wanting good work to go to waste, believed that his score deserved an additional life as his next work for the concert hall. Upon his return to New York, while also working on the score for Of Thee I Sing (which was to win the Pulitzer Prize in 1932) he completed the Second Rhapsody and prepared it for its Boston debut under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky (Leonard Bernstein’s mentor).

Gershwin Second Rhapsody
Wayne Marshall
The Hollywood Bowl Orchestra

Wayne Marshall Conductor

Pictured above is Lancashire-born conductor/organist/pianist Wayne Marshall, 57—with credits as Chief Conductor of WDR Funkhausorchester; Organist and Associate Artist of the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester; Principal Guest Conductor of Orchestra Sinfonica di Milano Giuseppe Verdi; and as an acclaimed interpreter of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein—who I’d put money on to become one of the top-ranking conductors in the world.

The form most commonly heard today is a re-orchestrated version created fourteen years after Gershwin’s death. Since this version is the only one offered by the publisher, it has been almost impossible for orchestras to perform the piece as Gershwin envisioned it. However, the 1931 recording (above) of a run-through of the music, with Gershwin playing the solos and conducting the orchestra, gives some idea of the original version. Michael Tilson Thomas has been a promulgator of Gershwin’s original 1931 version. He sought out the original manuscript in the library as the basis of his 1985 recording and for his later performances.

Gershwin Second Rhapsody
Michael Tilson Thomas
The Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra

John Wilson‘s latest CD release, The Best of the John Wilson Orchestra, recycles some of the song hits from his BBC Proms shows—but it also includes his never-heard-before version of Gershwin’s Second (here called “New York”) Rhapsody.

Gershwin Second Rhapsody
Ian Buckle
The John Wilson Orchestra

Julian Ovenden, Sierra Boggess, Kim Criswell and Conductor John Wilson

A thousand years of Anglo-Saxon intermarriage hath wrought my beloved John, and I wouldn’t change a hair on his head or a neuron in his brain. I would ask him to shave a little more often—Don Johnson you are not, pet. For daily wear jeans, OK, trainers, OK, most of us go around like that. And when it’s concert time, my bonny, I don’t care if you wear your famous tails or a tuxedo or a nice suit and tie or even one of those chic unisexual black Nehru jackets that a lo’ of the modern conductors seem to like. But I don’t care what the other boys do at concert time, just you, please, treat your razor as a friend.

Kim and John Wilson

“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Carousel, Played by The John Wilson Orchestra, Conducted by John Wilson, BBC Proms 2010

There was one number in the entire JWO Salute to Rodgers & Hammerstein that was worth a damn—only one, but it’s a doozy.

John Wilson June.jpg

An impressive list of orchestrators went into the making of this film musical number, including Nelson Riddle, Earle Hagen (That Girl Theme, The Dick Van Dyke Show Theme, The Andy Griffith Show Theme) and John Williams; you can hear the layers and layers of gorgeous sound in John and his Orchestra’s rendition.

This clip is from the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, 2010, but really, listen instead to this cut from the JWO’s 2011 recording:

“June Is Bustin’ Out All Over”
from Rodgers & Hammerstein At The Movies