It was just the other night had a fever dream, running a 101-degree temperature and twisting the sheets, not longing for my beloved John Wilson this time, but trying to fight off an infection. When I finally made it into sweet sweaty sleep I was immediately taken into a strange scenario where, for God knows what reason, I was expected to conduct, with no rehearsal, Australian composer Brett Dean’s tribute to the doomed Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov, in front of an audience of 200-800 (the crowd kept stealthily increasing), among whose number were members of the orchestra I couldn’t tell apart and no one was helping me. Being a dream, there were other factors and factors conspiring to keep me from conducting the damn piece: the string section turned into one fella carrying a zither that turned into a floor harp; the stage manager was nowhere to be found and I was expected to run the lights as well; no one would give me a copy of the score. When I yelled out, “Okay, who’s got the tinfoil?” it was then I woke up.
The thing is, I’ve never dreamed about conductors before, much less being one myself; never wanted to be a conductor in real life, never even thought much about the breed—until I fell in love with John, of course… And even then the question still keeps coming back to me: Well, what are they good for anyway?
Still in my dream, the moment before I woke up, I heard a tiny voice whisper: Conductors are not disposable. I take this to be a message. In fact I take this to be the message, the one I’m meant to convey. The one I’m meant to conduct. In fact I think I can make a gig out of it.
You know, I did a paper on the novella this opera’s based on, The Turn of the Screw, back in grad school. Something about the whole thrust of the story having to do with, ultimately, Henry James’s weird revulsion to/fear of sexuality—any sexuality—gay, straight, bi, kinky, whatever. Which in my ignorant prejudice I took to be typical of all English men anytime, anywhere—until I remembered that James was born not just American but, like my son, a native New Yorker (used to take The Kid to the playground in Washington Square near James’s old house) and he turned out fine. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of textual interpretation OperaGlass Works, who’re engaging John for late March 2020, go with.
Luckily my English born-and-bred John has nothing to do with the story (really, James’s story is a creepy creepy story) on stage. He’ll be conducting members of his very own Sinfonia of London in the pit of Screw and this, mes amis, is a big deal, because this will be 1) the Sinfonia’s first public appearance since John (re)formed it a year ago, so it’s a chance for their fans to hear them in person; and 2) they get to play the music of Benjamin Britten together.
During Easter Week, the holiest week of the year for observing Catholics, John will be 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.
Lastly, re “Meditation”, 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 new album (10th cut) and in which Andrew Haveron performs his violin solo like an angel:
I thought it was important to put in this posting’s title the date in which the self-taught French composer Chabrier wrote this enduringly scrumptious piece, the orchestration sounding more like something post-WWI. Yet it was composed during the height of La Belle Epoque. This was the last piece (a reduction, of course) I ever played on the violin in my junior high school orchestra, before switching a couple years later, at 16, to Voice at the University of Minnesota.
Lastly, a word about the strings in the fourth movement. Yup, there was that “John Wilson Orchestra shimmer”, that famous wrist vibrato anyone who’s ever picked up a violin recognizes and has to have come to terms with fairly early in training. We used to wonder if it made our playing actually sound better, and it depends. The Russians and Mittel-Europeans used it a lot a hundred years ago. Some call this type of playing now “period playing”. My old boss, Rouben Mamoulian, called this style of playing “Crying Violins”. He claimed it was his idea to use it in the musical Love Me Tonight, in the “Isn’t It Romantic” sequence.
John Wilson, winner of the 2018 Incorporated Society of Musicians Distinguished Musician Award, conducts the Academy Symphony Orchestra in a Russian-themed program: Brett Dean’s 2006 work “Komarov’s Fall”, followed by Academy piano student Bocheng Wang joining the orchestra for Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3; Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 “Pateticheskaya” (better known as the “Pathétique”) closes the concert.
Just a couple things concerning John’s ever-evolving technique. Noticed that in the Tchaikovsky, in the Allegro con grazia he put down his baton in order to use both hands in shaping the sound, which worked just fine and made the second movement the most effective movement of the symphony. In the third movement, that young percussionist played the cymbals with more reverberation, making a less snappy sound—on time, but eliciting a very visible reaction from their conductor. In fact, it was enough to prompt my bonny to take the kerchief to wipe his face out of his pocket with a decided snap, as well as to turn the score page with a snap equally as audible—a discernable message—before taking a moment to humbly submit to the music and end the concert with a satisfying fourth.
My bonny John Wilson conducted this overture, along with William Walton’s Symphony no.1, on 21 September 2019 at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester (broadcast on the 24th followed by 30 days of streaming, till 23 October). Only thing I know about Dmitri Kabalevsky (1904 – 1987), that old Communist, is his “Comedians” Suite—which John may very well end up doing sometime, if he hasn’t already—and the dauntingly massive bildungsroman Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland, who also wrote the original novel the opera Colas Breugnon is based on. (Never finished Jean-Christophe, may yet. Let you know.) This piece is typical of the kind of repertoire John is getting known for: bright, busy, theatrical, uncomplex, and quite entertaining.
It was also pleasing to hear the BBCCO playing under John’s baton a creditable rendition of Walton’s first and most frequently programmed (as a matter of fact, Vasily Petrenko conducted this in London back in March) and recorded symphony. This is a good gig for John, the first concert of the season at Bridgewater Hall. Quite an honor, in fact.
In 1988, I brought a recording of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp to Leonard Bernstein’s country home in Fairfield, Connecticut. It was a rare event to have dinner with him and no one else. After dinner, I asked if he would be willing to hear something I had discovered and found particularly interesting.
I played the first movement of the symphony. Bernstein only knew that it was a symphony and therefore might have expected it to be in four movements. After intently listening to the twelve-minute movement, he had no idea who the composer was, but he liked the music enough to ask to hear the second movement. And so it went, after each movement I gave him a chance to beg off. The symphony’s third movement—its emotional climax—inspired him to jump to the piano and repeat its opening motif and the devastating substitution in its harmonic structure that happens twenty seconds into it. After the last movement, I told him who had composed it. I also told him that though the piece was completed in 1952, its concert premiere did not take place until 1972, fifteen years after the composer’s death.
On first hearing, Bernstein thought the symphony should have ended with the third movement, which would have made it a very tragic symphony indeed. I suspect he heard it in terms of Mahler, which is appropriate enough. He had not predicted—or perhaps wanted—its upbeat finale that takes the gentle second theme of the first movement and transforms it into a positive march, albeit with a dark warning before its conclusion.
Be that as it may…I am sure that he would have turned his attention to Korngold had he not passed away in 1990. Ironically, one of his mentors, Dimitri Mitroupoulos, had stated in 1959 that he had finally found “the perfect modern work” and planned to perform the Korngold the next season with the New York Philharmonic, but his death intervened.
from For the Love of Music: A Conductor’s Guide to the Art of Listening
by John Mauceri (Knopf, 2019)