There is so much to love in this Joan Crawford flick I hardly know where to begin. Firstly, it is my second-favorite Crawford movie (the first being Rainobviously, as I was in the 1980 version). Secondly, Oscar Levant. Oscar Levant! Novelist Nora Johnson’s object of teenage lust!
Thirdly, the B&W gorgeousness of the movie itself.
A few insights on the orchestral pieces of the lively and prolific Richard Rodney Bennett (“A Collage Artist” will be the post’s title) to be finished as soon as I, one, do a little necessary sex writing, and, two, actually buy the complete Chandos 4-volume set of the work of John’s distinguished mentor, conducted by John. For now, here’s a recording from a BBC broadcast (yes, bonny John is conductor) that starts off with a few words from the composer himself:
NOTE: “[The English temperament] is disciplinable, and steadily obedient to certain limits, but retaining an inalienable part of freedom and self-dependence, [with a propensity for] spending its exertions within a bounded field, the field of plain sense, of practical utility.” ~ Matthew Arnold The Study of Celtic Literature (1867)
From The Guardian, Fiona Maddocks: “The final work, Elgar’s “Enigma” Variations, was one of the best, most alert and detailed performances you could hope for. Wilson, whose gestures on the podium are so unassuming he appears to do nothing more than beat time, had scrutinised the score, and asked probing questions about every familiar phrase, making it fresh. The Sinfonia of London, mostly a recording ensemble, is made up of leading principals or chamber musicians who want to play for Wilson. You can hear their devotion.”
MY BELOVED CONDUCTOR SPEAKS!
[Proms Director] David Pickard and I had a conversation about Sinfonia Of London’s connection in the past to English music, principally John Barbirolli’s famous record of English music for strings and it is as we know Ralph Vaughan Williams’s 150th anniversary so I thought opening with the Tallis Fantasia would be (a) good thing. And built that around I guess the English romantics and a fairly recent work by a living composer, Huw Watkins, who is Welsh and one of my favorite composers and a piece which he actually happened to write for Adam Walker, who’s our principal flute. The rest of the program con-sists of things you might know and you might not know. Walton’s Partita, which is a tour de force but it’s rarely done, and I think that’s because it’s so impossibly difficult. … Very difficult! One of the first violins came up to me and he said, “This is absolutely bloody murder!” We really sweated over it, and I—I hope to pull it off.
Love this cover. Actually, it’s kind of sophisticated. Look! It has the magic words Hollywood and John Wilson and nothing more need be said. Now I know what to get for Christmas for my other old lady friends.
Above: John conducts the Sinfonia of London in Frederick Loewe’s “Embassy Waltz” from My Fair Lady.
Here’s an American musical film starring Eleanor Powell and James Stewart, directed by Roy Del Ruth and released in 1936 by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. The score, a smutty parody of HMS Pinafore, was composed by Cole Porter.
The plot is sublimely ridiculous: While on leave, sailor Ted Barker (played by James Stewart) meets Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) at the Lonely Hearts Club, which is owned by Jenny Saks (Una Merkel), the wife of fellow sailor “Gunny” Saks (Sid Silvers), oy. Ted instantly falls in love with Nora. Ted later meets Broadway star Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) aboard a submarine while she’s on a publicity tour. Her damn dog falls overboard, Ted rescues it, and Lucy falls in love with him. Though Ted has already scheduled a date with Nora, he is ordered by his captain, Dingby (Raymond Walburn), to meet Lucy in a nightclub.Nora, who lives with Jenny and her 4 year-old daughter, Sally (Juanita Quigley), aspires to become a Broadway dancer. However, her newfound career is in serious jeopardy when she inadvertently comes between Lucy and her producer McKay (Alan Dinehart). Nora distances herself from Ted after seeing pictures of him and Lucy in a newspaper the next morning.Lucy pressures McKay to stop the press campaign, threatening to leave the Broadway production if any more photos or articles about her and Ted are published. Nora becomes Lucy’s understudy and re-considers her attitude towards Ted. But she’s suddenly fired after McKay tells her to perform a dance that Lucy considers undanceable. Ted, of course, to the rescue. That’s our Jimmy.
Besides Eleanor Powell and James Stewart, the cast also featured Virginia Bruce (here singing the above song), Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Frances Langford (as a brunette), Raymond Walburn, Alan Dinehart, Buddy-freakin-Ebsen, little Juanita Quigley, Barnett Walker, and Reginald-double-freakin-Gardiner as the policeman who conducts “Easy to Love”.
After wading through the unsurprising reviews of John’s 16 July concert at the Royal Albert, thought I’d list his upcoming performances:
Above: I’m afraid nothing on this list arouses my delight except the Martin-Blane standard, “Love”, here suavely sung by the co-composer himself, Ralph Blane; kickass arrangement by Ralph Burns, who 6 years later orchestrated Richard Rodgers’s No Strings.
The dates link to the ticket sites. The other highlights link to available recordings.
From 4barsrest.com, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists: The critically acclaimed big band and orchestral conductor (that’s my lad!) has accepted the role of Honorary President of the Yorkshire band Black Dyke. Chairman of the Board of Black Dyke Band Trustees, Trevor Caffull stated, “We are delighted that John Wilson has agreed to be our Honorary President and very excited with some of the initial thoughts shared regarding potential collaborations. In his early life, John was steeped in brass band culture. He has clearly lost none of his enthusiasm for the genre and we are very optimistic that this will evolve into a mutually rewarding association.”
About Fanfares: I fell in love with John the spring of 2018. The summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands at the Royal Albert; the summer I finally heard on YT his Proms Oklahoma! from 2017 with Mister Grumble and having to end up apologizing to my Oklahoman husband the rest of the year; but more importantly, this was the summer I decided to try to make as comprehensive a chronology as I could of John’s musical paths, as evidenced by the dates of live performances whether videoed or not, radio broadcasts, album recordings and so forth. In this way I hoped to be able to follow him on those various paths, perhaps to be rewarded, even if only for a moment, with hearing music as he hears it, or perceiving if only for a moment what he feels when he conducts. So when I bought Fanfares, it was not a completely whimsical purchase. When I read later on that, a few months after he recorded with Onyx at St Jude’s, John went on to tame the raucous festival orchestra of Circus Roncalli at their New Year’s show in Berlin, I knew I was on the right track.
So this is what I garner from John’s travels in brass. His Newcastle-Gateshead working-class background stands him in good stead in this field; as it’s in the north of England, among the factory and mine workers who were also dedicated amateur instrumentalists, that the uniquely British form of brass ensemble was not simply allowed to grow and thrive, but achieve such a high excellence of sound and musicality that concert composers were, and continue to be, attracted to write works for it, for example this ravishing masterwork by Scottish-born composer Peter Graham for the 165-year-old, 28-piece Black Dyke Band of Yorkshire.*
It was in and around groups like these, as a percussionist, as well as in amateur musical pit orchestras, as a conductor, where my beloved John Wilson as a teenager got his start, and where he first developed his “ear”.
Which brings us back to Fanfares played by the London-based Onyx Brass, or to be more accurate, the Onyx Brass 5 plus 6 friends. In this trailer @00:24, John gleefully declares his pleasure at hearing such a rich clear loud sound (“shatteringly loud” he laughs, “a thrilling sound”) from such a relatively small chamber group. A little brass does go a long way.
The album is a tribute to the impressive range of John’s genuine knowledge of the repertoire. The selections are grouped under each of the 15 featured composers, themselves grouped very loosely by era. If one listens seriously and openly to the entire record—there are 58 cuts—even an absolute neophyte to the field of British brass might be able to discern qualities in the music itself that distinguish traditional British music in general: for instance those certain intervals I talked about in “The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold” that suggest stability, cohesiveness, and “rightness”. This is the music of pageantry.
John begins the collection with famed Master of the Queen’s Music, Arthur Bliss, near the top, and the Onyx Brass does his “God Save the Queen” with the reverence and swelling pride it deserves. Tuneful Arnold, who played first trumpet in the BBCSO, is well-represented here, as are Albert Ketelbey, Arnold Bax, Frederic Curzon, Eric Coates, etc etc. But the real gems come from Imogen Holst (Gustav’s daughter, 1907-1984) with her “Leiston” Suite (1967); Elisabeth Lutyens with her typically odd but compelling Fanfare for a Festival (1975); Michael Tippett with the “Wolf Trap” Fanfare (1980); and also Joseph Horovitz, my beloved John’s composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, with his “Graduation” Fanfare No 2”, which debuted in 2013 at the graduation ceremony of the Royal College.
Each of these later pieces may stretch the definition of what a fanfare actually is, but all of them contribute a superior musicality to the brass repertoire. John’s championing of these works—particularly Holst’s suite, which deserves to be included in general concert programs—shows me not only where his heart is, but also his head. And John Wilson’s head is something that’s been on my mind for the last four years.
*A brief look at the score excerpt of Graham’s “Metropolis 1927” will give you an idea of how large and fully-complemented a British brass band can be.
20 November, 1999. On this day 20 years ago, at 6AM, my bonny John Wilson made his first appearance on BBC radio when the morning show played his 1997 recording for Chandos of “The Tempter”, a theatrical music piece by the nearly forgotten, once popular, Welsh-English composer Sir Edward German (1862 – 1936), whose reputation John in his career has done a lot to restore. No, really. I’m into theatrical music so I should have known about this chap years ago, not just about Arthur Sullivan. So thank you, John, for Edward German. (I think you do a nifty Nell Gwyn Overture too.)
John was 25 when he conducted this, and even then showed his flair with bright theatrical pieces.
I don’t know what I did to please the gods but on this 2020 October morning, somehow, I took a perfect screenshot of John conducting, while watching the (UK time) 7:30pm performance of the Royal Academy of Music (Finzi, Strauss). “Metamorphosen” is from his new album on Chandos.
Above my beloved John, who I’m pleased to have captured as crisply and revealingly as Robert Elswit with his pic of Jake and Stephen Gyllenhaal (Steve’s gift to me): Himself conducting the Sinfonia of London in Strauss’s “Metamorphosen” (Chandos, 2022).
Hangover Square is a 1945 American film noir directed by John Brahm, based on the 1941 novel of the same name by English author Patrick Hamilton. The screenplay was written by Barré Lyndon (pseudonym of Alfred Edgar), who made a number of typical Hollywood changes to Hamilton’s pre-WWII black comedy novel, which sympathetically portrayed the denizens of London’s seedier bedsitters and pubs—the most notorious changes being 1) turning alcoholic protagonist George Harvey Bone into a classical composer-pianist; 2) turning down-and-out Hangover Square into a fakey-English-fakey-genteel neighborhood; and 2) setting the story in the early 20th-century, complete with tailcoats, corsets, chandeliers, the works.
The film was released in New York City on February 7, 1945, two months after its star Laird Cregar suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 31. His idiosyncratic career lives on in his films—The Lodger, most notably, and this one.
Above Cregar’s mad composer: Bernard Herrmann’s composition by a mad composer, played by Ben Dawson and backed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of my beloved John.
From FilmScore.com, 2011: John Wilson, the current enfant terrible of British conductors, was in Glasgow yesterday, Sunday 18th September, to conduct Music To Be Murdered By: a varied selection of Bernard Herrmann, Alfred Newman, Miklos Rozsa, David Raksin, Richard Rodney Bennett and Constant Lambert film music with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra.
The Overture to All About Eve, Alfred Newman’s 1950 20th Century Fox classic film score followed and then pianist Ben Dawson joined Wilson and the BBCSSO to perform brilliantly the Concerto Macabre (John), the climax to Herrmann’s spine-tingling score from Hangover Square. The first act finale was Parade of the Charioteers from Ben Hur (John), Miklos Rozsa’s masterpiece—the orchestra and Wilson brought the house down with this rousing and spectacular performance.
More Herrmann started Part Two: Prelude-Murder-Finale from Psycho (John) . Just the right amount of brio and flair showed the appreciative audience just what a great conductor John Wilson is—he nailed this suite with consummate ease. He might have been channelling Bernard Herrmann here—one of the best performances of this music I have heard.
The afternoon was a great addition to Bernard Herrmann’s centennial—and the almost-full auditorium at Glasgow’s City Hall proved that the audience certainly appreciated Herrmann, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra and conductor John Wilson, whose love of film and film music gave us a performance to treasure—and remember. ~Alistair Kerr
Hope you’re feeing better, mi vida, and that you’re up and getting ready for Sheffield. Given that my feelings for you lie somewhere between an Oscar Hammerstein lyric and an Iris Murdoch story, I want to share with you 1) the most beautiful Kern-Hammerstein song of them all which, of course, you’d be familiar with; and 2) an early passage from my second favorite comic novelist’s 15th novel, The Black Prince (Viking, 1973) before everybody goes to hell and—well, I won’t give it away:
…[I]t is one of the peculiarities, perhaps one of the blessings, of this planet that anyone can experience this transformation of the world. Also, anyone can be its object. … The foreverness of real love is one of the reasons why even unrequited love is a source of joy. The human soul craves for the eternal of which, apart from rare mysteries of religion, only love and art can give a glimpse. … Love brings with it also a vision of selflessness. How right Plato was to think that, embracing a lovely boy, he was on the road to the Good. I say a vision of selflessness, because our mixed nature readily degrades the purity of any aspiration. But such insight, even intermittent, even momentary, is a privilege and can be of permanent value because of the intensity with which it visits us. Ah, even once, to will another rather than oneself! Why could we not make of this revelation a lever by which to lift the world? Why cannot this release from self provide a foothold in a new place which we can then colonize and enlarge until at last we will all that is not ourselves? That was Plato’s dream. It is not impossible.
Above John’s dear face: Tony Bennett with Bill Charlap on the piano in a thrilling rendition, from 2015, of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s “All the Things You Are”.
Imagine Ida Rubenstein, who commissioned this late work from the old man, dancing to it in private…not to her lover, but to the portrait of her lover, to which she can be just as revealing as she pleases…
I see you like this, John, and I’m a puddle of goo. Above: My number one stroke song. In case you missed it, you mooks, that’s Bolero up there, Maurice Ravel’s 1928 one-movement orchestral piece, played by the Sinfonia of London and conducted by the man I love, John Wilson, for Chandos records, February 2022.