Then that changed. On the 10th of January this year the LSO completely canceled John’s concert.
Then on 8 April the LSO released on Marquee.tv a freebie fundraiser video concert with a couple of selections from the two earlier planned programs, plus Maurice Ravel’s “Valses Nobles et Sentimentales”, as well as Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess, A Symphonic Picture” arranged by Robert Russell Bennett and Richard Rodney Bennett’s Partita for Orchestra.
Hard sell from the LSO website: “John Wilson takes his personal favourites by Gershwin, Ravel and Richard Rodney Bennett, and presents them in glorious sonic Technicolor. Everyone knows that no-one—but no-one—conducts Gershwin with more verve and style than John Wilson. But today he gets even more personal, with joyous, multicoloured showpieces by two composers close to his heart: Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, and Richard Rodney Bennett’s brilliant Partita. For some, Rodney Bennett was the composer who did Four Weddings and a Funeral; for others, he was one of the finest jazz pianists of our time. But for Wilson, he was a friend, an inspiration, and ‘an absolute master’. This should be a treat.”
I had a dream about you a few days ago, John. It was very short. You were maybe 17, 18… You were standing on Tyne Bridge looking down at the river… It was a cool glassy day and the river was cool and glassy… And you were standing there, thinking and pondering that this was the finest sight there ever was… Then you turned your gaze eastward, toward the North Sea… But all you could see was a shimmery horizon, and maybe it was the sea, but it was calm as well and it made you think about how infinite and endless it was (you were only 17, after all)… And then after a few more seconds of pondering you turned to look at me and you said, ‘And that’s when I decided to love Vaughan Williams.’
Above the maestro and the sea, Sakari Oramo conducts the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Youth Choir, and soloists Sally Matthews and Roderick Williams in Vaughan Williams’s Symphony no 1.
Front Row: What’s so enthralling to you about the music of Erich Korngold?
John: It’s very much his own style… You hear two seconds of music and immediately you know it’s by Korngold because by the way he was 13 or 14 he had a fully developed late-Romantic Austro-German style and, you know, had it not been for the Nazis and the Second World War he would have continued to develop his operatic skills, his symphonic skills, and he would now be as established as Richard Strauss…
Front Row: What made you choose the particular pieces [for the Chandos recording] that you did?
John: I think the Symphony, Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp, is the last great Austro-German romantic symphony and…it was written 1947 to 52, it took 5 years, and…I think it was the piece that Korngold spent, lavished the most time on. I think it was the piece that he felt was he felt he really had to write because it was a labor of love… And you know, he couldn’t get a satisfactory performance out of it during his lifetime because he was considered old hat…and in 1972 I think it was, it was discovered in the Munich orchestra’s library and the first recording performance given… And I just felt that the time had come for a revised sort of conception of this symphony of Korngold’s.
From MusicalCriticism.com, 2009: As part of the celebrations for Johnny Mercer’s centenary, the BBC Concert Orchestra mounted two semi-staged performances of his final stage musical, The Good Companions, at the Watford Colosseum in Hertfordshire. Conductor John Wilson—who led the phenomenally popular MGM Prom this August, as well as a fantastic concert performance of My Fair Lady in Gateshead in July—came together with an experienced cast that included Liz Robertson, Ian Talbot and Annalene Beechey to perform the show, which was first staged in London in 1974. The results could not have been more entertaining.
Above Inigo, Susie Dean and Miss Trant: Judi Dench, from the 1974 West End production, sings “Darkest Before Dawn”.
The Good Companions is based on JB Priestley’s most popular novel—indeed the work that solidified his reputation. It tells the tale of an upper-middle class woman who—quite against the advice of her relatives—decides to use her newfound wealth to fund a group of strolling players whose director has run off with all the money; escape is a strong theme of the show. One can see why the backstage musical flavour of the novel must have appealed to the book and song writers.
The libretto for the West End show was adapted by Ronald Harwood, Oscar-winning screenwriter of The Pianist. Composer Andre Previn, former Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, wrote the music for the Gene Kelly film It’s Always Fair Weather and conducted the films Gigi and My Fair Lady. Lyricist Mercer received nineteen Academy Award nominations and was the lyricist of dozens of American standards including “Moon River” and “The Days of Wine and Roses”.
In short, the piece is an underrated little gem (the original cast album starring Judi Dench, John Mills and Marti Webb was briefly available but is now a rarity), and in conductor John Wilson’s taut performance all the nuances came through. It seems the project has been a labour of love for him: the original full orchestral score was lost after being simplified for amateur productions, and although some of the original performing parts were eventually discovered by Caroline Underwood of the Warner/Chappell music publishers, Wilson has had to restore parts of the score for which no material survived. He has rendered the work of Angela Morleyand Herb Spencer, the orchestrators of the original production, extremely sympathetically, and led the performance with verve.
With theMaida Vale Singers covering a range of smaller roles and raising the roof in the ensemble numbers, and the BBC Concert Orchestra playing at their exquisite best, this was a superb evening. One hopes the same team will explore more classic musicals in the future, but in the meantime the Radio 3 broadcast on 16 November at 7pm is not to be missed. ~Dominic McHugh
CANCELLED: During Easter Week, the holiest week of the year for observing Catholics, John in Santiago, Chile conducting a me-tic-ulously chosen student orchestra, culminating in a concert on Easter Sunday consisting of the always-favorite Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 3.
RECORDED: Lastly, re “Meditation” above, that short symphonic intermezzo between the scenes in Act 2 in the opera Thaïs (1893) by Jules Massenet, which my beloved John conducts on his February 2020 album from Chandos (10th cut) and in which Andrew Haveron performs his violin solo like an angel:
Everybody, go away. I’m gazing at John with love and longing and taking this to a private place.
My beloved John conducted the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain (who The Guardian described as “a fearless young army on the move”) in “The Pines of Rome” by Respighi in Leeds in 2015; and in Glasgow, where he’s been the Associate Guest Conductor for several years, with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 2018. Now he’s rounding out his association with this perennial orchestra piece with a wonderfully crisp and sparkling new recording from Chandos with the new Sinfonia of London.
I classify this under My First Music because I first heard this symphonic poem in a broadcast of a Young People’s Concert. Leonard Bernstein conducted, the NY Philharmonic played. Listen for the feet of Roman soldiers along the Appian Road, my affectionately-remembered rabbi of music suggested. I think I was 11.
Great to see my bonny back in the saddle, beard and all. This is the first concert of a series of 3 by the Philharmonia which was underwritten by a private family trust and partnered with Classic-FM, but it wouldn’t hurt to throw them a few extra dollars around this time.
Before we get to what I think will be a nice and fair assessment of John Wilson’s new recording, a word to some people.
I have always been aware of the tacit agreement that exists between my screen persona Simona Wingand her fans, but let me now take this apt opportunity to state my position clearly: You all have my blessing to do whatever you want with me in your fantasies.
Because whatever you want to do with me in your fantasies is nothing compared to what I want to do withJohn Wilsonin mine. So, go for it.
Now on to Korngold.
I didn’t realize this was still a thing in the music world, but apparently opinions continue to be strongly divided as to whether Erich Wolfgang Korngold—a true heir, by the way, to The Great Mittel European Romantic Tradition—deserves inclusion in the canon some snooty farts call the Classic Repertoire. You know, the one that has Bach and Beethoven and all those other cats. It’s no secret that when you mention the name Korngold, the average music lover’s first thought is of upmarket movie soundtracks (Anthony Adverse—The Adventures of Robin Hood—The Sea Hawk—Captain Blood) and likely never gets around to the fact that Korngold wrote, among other things, the most luscious symbolist opera of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt, in 1920, and a hell of a gorgeous violin concerto 25 years later:
So it seems like every generation there has to be one nut who comes along and says, Let’s run Korngold past the hoi-polloi again and see if he’ll fly—and if you think I’m talking about you, John Wilson, you’ve got a swelled head. Because the nut I’m talking about is the nut in the CIA. The anonymous nut who got The Company to fund an enterprise back in the early 70s called “The Golden Age of Hollywood Music” and hence to elevate Korngold to the status of Hollywood Royalty—but through his film scores and his film scores only.
But that story later.
We’re here right now not just to size up a new Korngold recording, but to honor the decades-long musical relationship of Andrew Haveron, violinist, former Leader of The John Wilson Orchestra, current Leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and conductor John Wilson, whose career in orchestra building started at the age of 22 and hasn’t stopped since.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, their latest Chandos release, was going to get my attention with or without the Winsome Lad of Low Fell anyway, as I’m a sucker for this particular style and era of music. But I was glad to learn about their actual friendship as well; for me it explains why the perfect communication that’s so evident here between Haveron and my John (and through him, to the estimable RTE Orchestra) has some of the magic of Barenboim+du Pré, back in the brief days when those two were cooking hot with Elgar.
This is soloist Haveron’s star turn: a warm, fresh, intimate—revelatory even—rendition of a piece that, let’s face it, is kind of like the “Nessun Dorma” of violin concertos. But this is John’s success too. So much of my bonny’s gift for conducting Korngold, as we know, has to do with his insistence on a technique his PR people call “shimmer” but is actually wrist vibrato on strings, a technique in fingering I learned about and taught myself when I was 14 because I liked the sound it made, although when the orchestra teacher put it down for sounding cheap and sloppy I quit it.
But I know the sound of shimmer and you do too. The John Wilson Orchestra practically patented it. John himself still calls for it whenever he conducts Tchaikovsky. It’s in all the high-toned movies of the 1930s (examples above). It’s also in Rouben Mamoulian’s classic film musical Love Me Tonight (complete film here) courtesy of Paramount’s musical director Nat Finston, who understood what he was talking about when, in a certain musical scene, he said he wanted “crying violins”. I could tell what he was talking about when he told me this story 46 years later.