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 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’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 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 Royal Academy 2020 3John’s CD comes out February 2020 (Chandos #5252, Escales)

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My First Music: “Halcyon Days” from Eric Coates’s Three Elizabeths Suite; Soames Rapes Irene in The Forsyte Saga (BBC, 1967)

I was twelve when The Forsyte Saga (all 26 episodes available here) was first shown on American TV and I thought it was the coolest series ever.* It was about a large, rich and, though unconnected, influential family living in late-capitalistic England circa 1879, who keep getting into pretty heated conflicts with each other—which at the bottom are really about, more or less, the value of art and the inner life vs commerce—all the while being beautifully attired and beautifully well-spoken. Hearing this royal fanfare from “Halcyon Days” that opened the show was enough to get me all excited with anticipation on a Sunday night, but it wasn’t until last year around May when I finally discovered the composer of the piece, Eric Coates, plus the rest of this ravishing movement, when I fell in love with conductor John Wilson and developed a raging need to get close to the music he’s close to.

Soames Rapes Irene 3.jpgSoames, The Man of Property, Noted Art Collector, and about as Mr Wrong as you can get, mistook his wife for a soulless mannequin and, in novelist John Galsworthy’s sardonic words, “asserted his marital rights and acted like a man” in this scene, in which the BBC made shocking good use of Nyree Dawn Porter’s lovely embonpoint.

*In fact it got me to read the entire cycle of nine novels the series was based on; finished them when I was thirteen. Dinny Cherrell’s my favorite character.

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My First Music: Al Bowlly Sings Ray Noble’s “Goodnight, Sweetheart” in “City on the Edge of Forever” on the Original TV Show Star Trek (NBC, 1967)

The traditional closing number for any formal dance (the orchestra played this at every Rizal Day dance I ever attended in Minneapolis as a girl), the tender song “Goodnight, Sweetheart” was written by the English composing team of Ray Noble, Jimmy Campbell and Reg Connelly. In the recording used in Star Trek it was played by the Ray Noble Orchestra and sung by Al Bowlly, that darkly good-looking singer who, at the height of WWII, was found in the rubble of his London flat after a blitz attack, dead, but without a mark on his handsome face.

City on the Edge of Forever
Joan Collins and William Shatner in this memorable final episode of the first season, 1967.

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My First Music: The Pure Joy of St Trinian’s and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness by Malcolm Arnold

There must be something in the English character that enables the better artists among them to depict situations of unassuming, steady bravery with superior deftness, which is probably why their World War II pictures are better than ours. One of them, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness (20th Century Fox, 1958), doesn’t technically qualify either as a UK picture—Fox produced it; or as a WWII picture—it’s set during the Sino-Japanese War of 1938; but it does have unarmed peasantry scattering to the hills under Japanese gunfire, which is a theme that ran through my mother’s life starting with Pearl Harbor and ending in March, 1945 when American troops marched through the rubble-strewn streets of Manila, hunky victorious good guys. My mother’s first teenage romance was with a private in the 1st Cavalry Division named Kelly, come to think of it.

Now, when I refer to better artists of English character I don’t mean the film’s producer, director, writer (American, American, American), or stars (Swedish, Austrian). But it’s because of: one, the true-life heroine the story was based on; two, the location shooting; three, the non-lead casting; and four and most importantly, the music, that I think of Sixth Happiness as an English film. The true-life heroine of the story was English-born, not to mention the film has Snowdonia standing in for the daunting terrain around Yangcheng and pretty near the entire Chinese heritage population of Liverpool standing in for Chinese nationals, with supporting roles portrayed by stalwarts of UK stage and screen. This is the first thing I ever saw Burt Kwouk in.

But to the music. This is not Malcolm Arnold’s finest score—Bridge On the River Kwai (Columbia, 1957) really is a superior composition—but it rates higher with me becauuuse, you guessed it, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness has a gorgeous Love Theme, which you can hear below as the Royal Academy of Music performed the suite back in 2014. You’ll also hear the bright, high fanfare brass that Arnold used in a few other of his movies, River Kwai and the one below, for examples. Also, I’m starting to develop a theory to satisfy myself that certain intervals, played with conviction, are the real sinews of English music: they make for that sound of “rightness”, which you can take one way or another, depending on the mood—or your mood, for that matter. Sixth Happiness has plenty of those.

Inn of the 6th Happiness.jpg

Besides the satisfying fanfare brass, Sixth Happiness shares with the satirical The Belles of St Trinian’s (British Lion, 1954) a bit in the score where there’s a song meant to be sung by children—in Sixth Happiness it’s “This Old Man”; in St Trinian’s it’s the school’s hilarious “Battle Cry”. I’m not posting the lyrics here, so click on the link in red to listen to those cheerfully bloodthirsty oaths. But can you imagine what a liberating tonic this ferocious roar from the depths of The Untamed Female Soul was to a little girl in the Catholic part of Minneapolis, watching this on Saturday matinee TV (a tonic, incidentally, I would not imbibe again till I heard Bernadine Dorhn mouth off a few years later)—?

Here’s the BBCCO doing the St Trinian’s suite at the Proms (Timothy West, narrator) bringing back almost all the familiar, funny-music leitmotifs to smile at, like George Cole’s character’s “Flash Harry”, a loping, rattling kind of tune (although lamentably there’s no sign of Joyce Grenfell’s scurrying “Ruby Gates”) before returning to that ghoulish school pageant march, lyrics I believe provided by Arnold himself.

In contrast, “This Old Man” is meant to be a “found” song, purportedly a children’s counting song, heard on the playground since the 19th century, and in a way that’s right, as the first time I heard “This Old Man” was on the playground—but only because it had become a hit on US radio first in 1959. It’s still impossible for me not to hear “This Old Man” and not think of the climactic scene in Sixth Happiness: the hundred children crossing the Yellow River into safe territory, ragged and exhausted but alive, marching into the unoccupied city to cheering crowds, loudly singing this song. Invariably it brings tears to my eyes, immigrant daughter that I am, and I remember the first time I watched—and heard—this film on TV with my mother, my mind nearly forming the question I never asked her, not then, not ever: “What happened to you in the war, mom?” Because the music was so ravishing, the love story was so satisfying, and my mother just wanted to enjoy an Ingrid Bergman film.

~ for Stephen Tobolowsky

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My First Music: “Dahil Sa Iyo” and My Sentimental Devotion to Bonny John Wilson, Conductor

If you could, my bonny John Wilson, imagine me wearing a Maria Clara (like great-grandmother Aberin below) and you wearing a barong, I’d be singing you this song:

Verse: Sa buhay ko’y labis
Ang hirap at pasakit, ng pusong umiibig
Mandi’y wala ng langit
At ng lumigaya, hinango mo sa dusa
Tanging ikaw sinta, ang aking pag-asa.

Refrain: Dahil sa iyo, nais kong mabuhay
Dahil sa iyo, hanggang mamatay
Dapat mong tantuin, wala ng ibang giliw
Puso ko’y tanungin, ikaw at ikaw rin

Dahil sa iyo, ako’y lumigaya
Pagmamahal, ay alayan ka
Kung tunay man ako, ay alipinin mo
Ang lahat sa buhay ko, dahil sa iyo

Dahil Sa Iyo”
Mike Velarde Jr music (1938), Tom Spinoza, lyrics
Cora and Santos Beloy, vocalists
Tri-World Records (1964)

Great-Grandmother Aberin 1.jpgMy mother’s lola, my great-grandmother, the spitting image of my mother the way Georgiana Drew is the spitting image of Drew Barrymore. I have no documentation for my assertion—my family’s house and possessions were completely destroyed during the Japanese Occupation. But whenever we came across this picture in the media—in an article in Time, for example—my mom would always point her out and tell me the story of how my great-grandfather came over from Ireland and, upon discovering he was meeting fellow Catholics in a sea of Asians, stayed, changed his name from O’Brien to Aberin, and married the local beauty. How the Dutch photographer found her is anybody’s guess.

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My First Music: Original Soundtrack for Picnic (Columbia, 1955) Composed by George Duning, Orchestrated by Arthur Morton, and Conducted by Morris Stoloff

According to composer Duning, Picnic director Joshua Logan insisted on using the old standard “Moonglow” (Hudson-Mills-DeLange, 1933) in a critical scene, as had been done in the Broadway play, but demanded that Duning’s love theme be added at a specific point. Columbia’s music director Stoloff and Duning complied, creating a unique arrangement of the song and the movie theme, and it became an iconic moment in 1950s cinema, a pairing of tunes that would thereafter seem inextricably intertwined. [Read more on George Duning from the Film Music Society here.]

William Holden Kim Novak Picnic.jpgWilliam Holden and Kim Novak in the famous dance scene. Cinematography by James Wong Howe.

The entire soundtrack for Picnic was uploaded to YouTube by a thoughtful fan of George Duning’s.

Here’s that “Moonglow-Picnic” number.

And for good measure, here’s popular 50s singer Dorothy Collins’s rendition from her album Dorothy Collins Sings Steve Allen (Allen wrote the lyrics).

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My First Music: “Padanggo Sa Ilaw”, Another Tricky Filipino Dance

I’m not going to talk about the Tinikling here as it brings back unpleasant memories of having my ankles banged with bamboo poles, but I will mention the Pandanggo (from the Spanish word “fandango”). This is very elegant dance where dancers wear not the formal Maria Clara, which is hard to get around in, but the patadyong, which is a simple cotton dress with butterfly sleeves. My cousin Wilhelmina looked very nice doing this dance, with the candles on the backs of her hands and the candle on her head. You try balancing that. I almost started a fire.

Pandanggo Sa Ilaw (Marty McCorkle, 2016)[“Pandanggo Sa Ilaw” by Visayan resident Marty McCorkle, 2016]

Pandanggo traditionally is danced to rondalla music, which is a sort of serenade played by an ensemble of guitars and mandolins and other stringed instruments. It originated in Spain during the Middle Ages. You can also hear the rondalla sound in Mexican and Central and South American music, which should show that Filipinos are more cultural kin to the Hispanic world than the mainland Asian. But we claim both.

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