My First Music: On Conductor John Wilson and His Thing About Percussion, Plus Emmanuel Chabrier’s “España” (1883), John’s New Recording from Chandos

I thought it was important to put in this posting’s title the date in which the self-taught French composer Emmanuel 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.

As for my beloved John’s own especial sensitivity to percussion: Listening to and viewing John conduct the RAM student orchestra last Friday in Tchaikovsky’s 6th—in particular watching John’s very visible reaction to the cymbals in the third movement—gave me some insight into his musical values, which never fail to impress me. I understood the kind of sound he was trying to bring out from that young cymbalist and, had it worked, would indeed have sounded sooo nifty, it would have been John Wilson Orchestra nifty, but alas…

(The sound aspired to, incidentally, was that “snap” I heard the JWO achieve in Beyond the Sea about 16 years ago.)

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 fiddle 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 Royal Academy 2020 3NOTES for Escales (Chandos, 2020) can be found here.


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John Wilson Conducts the Royal Academy of Music Symphony Orchestra in Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky and Brett Dean, 24 January 2020

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.


The concert is available in video streamcast on FB here


John Wilson Royal Academy 2020 1 (1) Above John: Valery Gergiev conducts the Mariinsky Orchestra in Pyotr Illich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, 1995. Most of the “Pathétique” was quite nice, actually. If I had the key, John, there’d be homemade soup on the stove when you got home.

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 at the end of the movement 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.


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King Crimson; Samuel Barber’s Essay No 1, Op 12 and Conductor John Wilson at the Royal Festival Hall on 27 February, 2020

Listen carefully to this 1938 piece by American composer Samuel Barber and you’ll hear the stirrings and inspiration for English progressive rock group King Crimson’s classic “In the Court of the Crimson King”.

King Crimson.jpgAs part of the 50th anniversary of their founding (in October 1969) King Crimson will be touring the States with members of Frank Zappa’s band through summer 2020. Above: Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Symphony perform Barber’s Essay No 1 Op 12.

My beloved John will be conducting the Barber piece, along with Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major and Elgar’s Sketches for Symphony No 3 at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday, 27 February.


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Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No 1 in A-minor, Performed by Jacqueline du Pré and Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

On the 12th of September, 2019 my beloved John Wilson appeared at the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, starting off with cellist Andreas Brantelid performing the Saint-Saëns concerto, and finishing off the evening with Holst’s The Planets, which John has perfected to his satisfaction, conducting as he did in 2013 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Leeds in 4 of the 7 Planets.

Here’s the Goddess’s chosen one, Jacqueline du Pré, playing the concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, her husband Daniel Barenboim at the podium. In the time they had, they did not squander the gift that was given to them to make music together.

Jacqueline dupre big laugh
Part 1 [duration 10:15] / Part 2 [duration 10:06]


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My Beloved John Wilson Conducts the Concordia Foundation Artists in Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Southbank, November 2010

This 2010 clip was uploaded to YT as a fundraiser in 2020 for Concordia, a group dedicated to promoting and supporting struggling young musicians. My beloved John Wilson was one of those struggling young musicians, and now as guest conductor he leads Concordia Foundation Artists here in a performance of Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music from the Foundation’s 15th Anniversary Concert, held at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in London on 22nd November 2010, with a reading of the text by Founder and Artistic Director, Gillian Humphreys OBE. This is the piece that made Rachmaninoff weep.

John Wilson Conducts Concordia, 2010Above: Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music (1938) performed by John and Concordia.
How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony…

~William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act V

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My First Music: John Wilson Conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment in G&S Favorites at Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 18 April 2019

…including a complete concert performance of Trial By Jury which I was in, in a fully-staged semi-pro production, the year before my sweet Geordie lad was born.

Trial by Jury.jpgAbove my bonny John and members of the Trial by Jury cast: The D’Oyly Carte production, 1975.


Hastily conceived as a one-act filler for an evening’s entertainment with Offenbach’s La Périchole, Trial By Jury quickly established itself as the real hit of the production. Although this was not Gilbert & Sullivan’s first collaboration, it was the work that established the partnership for good. The first performance of Trial By Jury was on 25 March, 1875.

From Bachtrack.com: The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment has always gone its own way, choosing its own repertoire and collaborators and pioneering a now established framework for ‘historically informed’ performance. So what would happen when its players alighted upon WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, alongside the vivacious and intrepid John Wilson, king of 20th-century popular repertoire? Wilson drew miraculous playing from the OAE, which seemed completely at home among the clouds of meringue and piles of whipped cream that Gilbert & Sullivan offer their audiences. The overture to The Gondoliers is rather boilerplate stuff, lacking Sullivan’s flair for pastiche and relentless tunefulness we find in say, Iolanthe, whose wispy opening enchanted later. But Wilson offered us a generous cone of creamy gelato, coaxing sumptuous and effulgent warmth from the OAE strings… ~Benjamin Poore


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New Year’s 2017-18 at Circus Roncalli in Berlin with My Beloved John Wilson, Conductor

John Wilson at Circus Roncalli NYE 2017Above: A bright clever orchestral medley that riffs on Gershwin and Porter (sort of), arranged by John and played by the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester. From the YT promotional video.


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JB Priestley’s The Good Companions in 1933 with John Gielgud and Jessie Matthews; in 1974 with Judi Dench; in 2000 at the Eureka Theatre, SF; and in 2009 Conducted by John Wilson My Bonny

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 Morley and Herb Spencer, the orchestrators of the original production, extremely sympathetically, and led the performance with verve.

With the Maida 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


An excerpt from the musical film The Good Companions with Jessie Matthews and John Gielgud is available on my YT channel here



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Ralph Vaughan Williams Conducts His Symphony No. 5, 1952

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.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1956.jpg

My beloved John Wilson conducted this symphony with the Royal Northern Sinfonia at The Sage in his home town of Gateshead in March 2019.


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My Beloved John Wilson, RCM Alumnus, Conducts Fellow RCM Alumnus Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem with the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra, November 2013

Recorded on 7 November 2013 in the Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall at the Royal College of Music in London.

John Wilson RCM Britten 2013Above John: I Lacrymosa 00:00 / II Dies Irae 09:22 / III Requiem Aeternam 14:56.


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.


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John Wilson: An Appreciation from The Sinatra Music Society, Newcastle Branch, 2001

Transcribed by me from a screenshot uploaded on John’s fan club site.


From the Sinatra Music Society Newsletter by Phil Suffolk (2001) The world of music can be full of wonderful discoveries and surprises and this is certainly true when I encountered the name John Wilson for the first time. This was in 1997 with the release of an ASV CD devoted to lesser known compositions by that master of melody and superb orchestrator, Eric Coates, played by the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson.

The thing I first noticed first about this disc was the total commitment of the interpretations. A year later, a second volume appeared also devoted to the delightful compositions of Eric Coates. Once again I was struck by the deep understanding and respect show to these often unfamiliar scores, something which isn’t always the cast when this music is performed by orchestras and conductors who just do not seem to understand the idiom.

A little later I learnt that John was preparing a complete edition of the works of Eric Coates, so no wonder he is so completely “inside” this lovely music.

Born in Gateshead in 1972, John Wilson studied composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where he graduated in 1995 winning all the main prizes, and also where he was awarded the prestigious Tagore Gold Medal, the highest award attainable by a student at the college.

In 1996 John formed The Sinfonia of Westminster, a group comprised of the pick of the outstanding musicians from leading soloists and chamber groups. But John also enjoys a parallel career conducting The John Wilson Orchestra, which is comprised of young musicians devoted to keeping alive the music of The Great American Songbook, including arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Robert Farnon, Paul Weston and Conrad Salinger. The orchestra has given concerts in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall to great acclaim. He also appears regularly at Pizza in the Park and is the youngest conductor to broadcast on Radio 2’s long running Friday Night Is Music Night programme. John is also a prolific arranger himself, producing numerous orchestrations for film and television and he was also responsible for arranging all the music for the Hong Kong handover celebrations. The first two CDs to appear featuring The John Wilson Orchestra come from two different labels. The first one from Velvetone comprises 19 titles recorded at the CTS Studios in Wembley in 1998. Sarah Moule is the sensitive vocalist on eight tracks including “I Concentrate on You” and “Words Can’t Describe”, a little-known song once recorded by Sarah Vaughan. The rest is all orchestral, my favourites being “Skyliner” and “Cherokee”, both arranged by Neil Richardson, and Bob Farnon’s superb reworking of David Raksin’s classic “Laura”, which for me is worth the price of the disc alone!

John’s most recent CD is a first from Michael Dutton’s Vocalion Digital label. Previously this label has concentrated on re-issues of classic dance band and jazz recordings. They are now embarking on a series of original recordings made specially for the label, and John’s CD Orchestral Jazz is included in the first release. Using 24 strings, 4 winds, 5 rhythm and piano, this disc sounds superb and no wonder, featuring as it does on Richard Rodney Bennett playing piano on 4 tracks and providing arrangements for 8 tracks including “On the Sunny Side of the Street”, “Lush Life” and “Melancholy Baby”.

The remaining arrangements are shared between John himself and Neil Richardson.

Listen out for Ian Moffat’s superb trombone, also Enrico Tomasso on trumpet and Luke Annesley doubling on sax and clarinet. This issue should be snapped up by all who enjoy the very best in orchestral jazz. If you enjoy Nelson Riddle’s recordings then you should love this CD.

One wonders what the future has in store for John Wilson. Personally I would welcome a disc devoted to the music of Robert Farnon, and what about a CD of the great arrangements of the unsung hero of MGM musicals, Conrad Salinger. But whatever, the name John Wilson will ensure that the great music of the twentieth century will be kept alive, played and presented superbly by a young master interpreter. 


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“The Emperor Waltz” by Johann Strauss II, Conducted by Daniel Barenboim with the Berliner Philharmoniker, 2013

In the Revolution of 1848, Johann Strauss II (or Jr) had sided with the dissidents—the anti-Habsburg faction—while Strauss Sr his father had been an avowed royalist, composing the Radetsky March in honor of the great general who played a large part in suppressing the Revolution. For some time the court looked with misgivings and suspicion at Strauss Jr, however important he proved to the Austrian image.

There’s a file of a police interrogation where the younger Strauss was asked why he had dared to play the Marseillaise. In an Austria of strict censorship, that was a loaded question. Strauss answered, “Because it is good music and good music is what concerns me.”

But the wounds of the revolution gradually healed. Soon Austria had a new emperor. When the emperor celebrated the 40th anniversary of his accession in 1888, Strauss composed a waltz in honor of Franz Josef.

My signal, my flame, my beloved John Wilson conducted this piece in Stockholm 29 March 2019.

daniel-barenboim-strauss.jpegDaniel Barenboim conducts the Berliner Philharmoniker in Strauss’s grandest waltz.


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Gustav Holst’s The Planets: The National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain Conducted by John Wilson, Leeds Town Hall, May 2013

John WIlson and Young Artists

I Mars, the Bringer of War (1914)
III Mercury, the Winged Messenger (1916)
VI Uranus, the Magician (1915)
VII Neptune, the Mystic (1915)

John Williams used the melody and instrumentation of “Mars” as the inspiration for his soundtrack for the Star Wars films. You can especially hear this in the Death Star theme.

The concert also included John Adams’s Guide to Strange Places and Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes.


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Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss: Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Soprano, with George Szell Conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra

The Four Last Songs are “Frühling” (Spring), “September”, “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep) and “Im Abendrot” (At Sunset). All of the songs but “Frühling” deal with death and all were written shortly before Strauss himself died. They are suffused with a sense of calm, acceptance, and completeness. The settings are for a solo soprano voice given soaring melodies against a full orchestra, and all four songs have prominent horn parts. The combination of a beautiful vocal line with supportive horn accompaniment references Strauss’s own life: His wife Pauline de Ahna was a famous soprano and his father Franz Strauss a professional horn player.

schwarzkopf-last-songs-strauss.jpeg

My beloved John Wilson lived in this ravishing music when he conducted the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra late in March 2019, in a program that included Korngold and the Emperor Waltz.


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