After he finishes his JWO At the Movies gig touring the isle with his eponymous orchestra, cracking waaay off-the-beam jokes between numbers about sexual mores in 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 tribute 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.
There was one number in the entire JWO Salute to Rodgers & Hammerstein that was worth a damn—only one, but it’s a doozy.
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:
“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says bonny John. 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.
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.”
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.
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).
The last two numbers, “Donkey” and “Rainbow” were obvious tributes to Green’s late predecessor, Oscar-winner (for The Wizard of Oz score, which John reconstructed), Herbert Stothart.
John and his orchestra don’t always perform semi-staged musicals badly at the BBC Proms—their 2012 My Fair Lady was pretty much all right, no shenanigans there (although The Guardian wrote, “John Wilson’s adapted score—which borrows from Andre Previn‘s movie arrangements—adds a sparkle to even the most drearily expository songs: the flutes somehow sound cheekier, the brass ruder, the strings zingier”); and their 2014 Kiss Me Kate was big, sexy and playful, as it was meant to be. Winsome John even gets a speaking part!
Premiered at Symphony Hall, Boston, on 29 January 1932, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Serge Koussevitzky, Conductor and George Gershwin, Piano.
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).
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.
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.
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.
This recording was made off-air by a sound engineer using state-of-the-art recording equipment for the time that used rare and expensive long-playing acetate disks. The symphony was first performed in June 1943 (at the height of the blitz) but this recording captures a later performance in September 1952. There are four movements: Preludio 0:00 Scherzo 11:40 Romanza 16:40 Passacaglia 26:42.
My beloved John Wilson is slated to conduct this symphony with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at The Sage in his home town of Gateshead in March 2019.