Conductor John Wilson, Eugene O’Neill, and My Old Boss, Classic Film/Stage Director Rouben Mamoulian: Laying It On the Table At the End of the Year 2019, Part 1

John: You’re a pure musician, a true musician, you command the finest magical mechanism Western Civilization has ever achieved, the symphony orchestra, and you do this for a living. All life is asking you to do is be cool with it, that and my tender feelings for you.

Now, there are more compelling subjects in the world of music appreciation (like was Mozart poisoned, or who was Beethoven’s Immortal Beloved, or should Concert A be tuned to 432MHz instead of 440MHz) than ranting about the inane and vaguely insulting blatherings on the podium of a popular, middle-ranking English conductor. But I happen to have fallen in love with that conductor. And so it’s probably the case that I listen to that conductor’s pronouncements a little more acutely, a little more discerningly than I would, say, Michael Tilson Thomas’s or Maestro Mauceri’s. It’s just that you reveal more about yourself in your out-loud asides than I think you’d prefer, John.

So as much as I’d relish taking the time to dress you down for the impudent, thoughtless and ultimately self-revealing remarks you made about Mmes Bernstein and Coates, I really should finally get down to the one single thing (aside, of course, from your tearass tempi, your overuse of percussion, your rushing of singers, your astonishing lack of color in certain critical pieces) that has bugged me since the day I first encountered it: your juvenile dismissal of my old boss, film/stage director Rouben Mamoulian, and his creative contribution to the original 1943 production of Oklahoma! Now, I know you were only riffing off info you got in some book or from Andre Previn, who probably socialized with The Old Man when they were both at MGM. But, like I mentioned in an old posting, of all his stage and screen work The Old Man liked to talk about, the one he liked to talk about the most was Oklahoma! And I turned out to be his perfect audience, because early on I’d confessed to him that I was a big Rodgers & Hammerstein fan. (Filipinos are big Rodgers & Hammerstein fans, for obvious reasons.)

But before I say another word about Oklahoma! I have to tell you all now a side story about Mamoulian and Eugene O’Neill. It’s a doozy and it has everything to do with the point of this posting.

John and Mamoulian 2Rouben Mamoulian and John Wilson at around the same age, 80 years apart.

MAMOULIAN’S AND MY EUGENE O’NEILL STORY

This is the second story Mamoulian, The Old Man, ever told me, which he told me in a way that was flattering as hell, which was he didn’t ask if I knew who Eugene O’Neill was, although I did say “Wow” at the mention of the name, so he might have sized up my interest that way, and just went right into the story. Seems that when he was living an emigre’s life in New York, trying to make a go of it in stage work, he scored his greatest career triumph to date: The Theater Guild wanted him to direct a play by Eugene O’Neill. Now, O’Neill had already won the Pulitzer and he’d already had several successes, not to mention his other new play, Strange Interlude, was already generating a lot of pre-opening night buzz, so we’re talking King of 1928 Broadway here. O’Neill agrees to meet Mamoulian in his hotel room (that is to say, O’Neill’s hotel room. It seems like the best stories about O’Neill take place in hotel rooms) to talk over any directorial concerns O’Neill, the playwright, might have, and if he has any advice to give this youngster concerning his play.

“Actually, Mr O’Neill,” says Mamoulian, trying to sound like himself at thirty, you know, the brash but confident whiz-kid, “I know exactly how to fix your play.”

“You will change not a word. Not a word!” says O’Neill. And here The Old Man doesn’t bother to actually imitate O’Neill, although in time I heard him do some good impressions of other people, mostly actors.

“Look here, Mr O’Neill,” says young Mamoulian, opening the bound script of Marco Millions that he brought with him. “I can show you exactly where the speeches slow the play down, and where we can achieve the same ends using action. Here—” And here The Old Man imitates taking a blue pencil and boldly slashing a diagonal line across a rejected page like editors do— “—and here—” He goes on to recreate his turning the pages of the script one at a time— “and here—here—here—” with a slash! slash! slash! And all the time I’m thinking with a kind of growing horror: You CUT Eugene O’Neill!!!?

“But in the end,” Mamoulian assures me, “he saw that I was right, and we got along splendidly.”

But that’s not the end of the story. About a year after Mamoulian and I go our separate ways, I get a chance to attend opening night of Marco Millions at Berkeley Stage Company up in the Bay Area, as the plus-one of some guy I was seeing. This was around the time BSC was on its “classics” kick, making it clear in news and ads and publicity sheets that this wasn’t just any old O’Neill revival, this was an extra-special homage to the master playwright of our great theatrical heritage. Scenes cut from the 1928 production had been restored in order that this fruit of O’Neill’s genius be presented intact and full; Mamoulian’s name was hardly mentioned.

Well, I watch this big lumbering thing, right through the parts that dragged on and on with their interminable speeches about the redistribution of wealth and so on, and I’m thinking, this must be where he cut, here— Then here— And here  And almost like he’s whispering in my ear “See? See?” I realize that The Old Man was right to make the cuts, and that Marco Millions probably could have been a fine piece of theater if they’d stuck to the original opening night version.

But I swear, it was not on my mind to argue this during lobby talk after the curtain. The big thing on my mind was that I had the perfect story to share at this particular time, in this particular space, and yeah, I wanted to share it. I was with the guy who brought me, a cokehead freelance lighting designer who was always hitting up people for jobs. Together we went up to the artistic directors, a married couple, my date immediately starting in with the whole buttering up thing, you know, You look fabulous what have you been doing to yourself, etc etc etc.

I break in with something like, “You know, I have a great story about this play I got straight from (and here I made sure to stress the second syllable like he preferred) Rouben Mamoulian and how he worked with—”

And here the guy, my date, takes me aside and mutters as urgently but tenderly as is possible for him, “Sweetheart, would you please shut up while I’m talking business.”

Reader, I did.

So everyone, this is the first time—the very first time—in forty-one years I’m telling this story.

And you, Tom Stocker. Just for that, I regret having given you the most explosive orgasm of your life, the one that made you howl like a wolf.

Part 1 “The Rodgers Piano” here.
Part 2 “Agnes De Mille” here.

~ again, for Stephen Tobolowsky

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Walton’s Symphony No.1 and Dmitri Kabalevsky’s Overture to Colas Breugnon, Played by the BBC Philharmonic and Conducted by John Wilson

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.

Kabalevsky.jpgOverture to Colas Breugnon by Dmitri Kabalevsky, played by the BBC Philharmonic, Vassily Sinaisky, conductor (Chandos, 2003).

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.

Here’s Bryden Thomson conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in William Walton’s Symphony no.1 in B-flat minor.

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Leonard Bernstein Hears Korngold’s Symphony in F-sharp for the First Time

I created this posting just for John Wilson, Conductor fans (and as a lagniappe for the lad himself). By the way, the third movement is the one you want if you want to hear violinist Andrew Haveron shine:

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.

Erich Korngold

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)

Now my bonny John Wilson, please note the nice review I gave your Korngold.

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The True Heir to Leonard Bernstein, Michael Tilson Thomas in a 2012 TED Talk: “Music and Emotion Through Time”

Excerpt: What happens when the music stops? Where does it go? What’s left? What sticks with people at the end of a performance? Is it a melody or a rhythm or a mood or an attitude? And how might that change their lives? To me this is the intimate, personal side of music. It’s the “passing on” part, the “why” part of it. And to me that’s the most essential of all…

Michael Tilson Thomas

Now that we have unlimited access to music, what does stick with us? Well, let me share with you a story of what I mean by really sticking with us. I was visiting a cousin of mine in an old-age home, and I spied a very shaky old man making his way across the room on a walker. He came over to a piano that was there, and he balanced himself and began playing something like this. [plays notes on piano] And he said something like, “Me…boy…symphony…Beethoven…” And I suddenly got it and I said, “Friend, by any chance are you trying to play this?” [plays Beethoven concerto] And then he said, [excitedly] “Yes, yes, I was a little boy. The symphony, Isaac Stern, the concerto, I heard it.” And I thought, My God, how much must this music mean to this man, that he would get himself out of bed, across the room, to recover the memory of this music! That after everything in his life is sloughing away, still means so much to him…

Well, that’s why I take every performance so seriously, why it matters to me so much. I never know who might be there, who might be absorbing it, and what will happen to it in their life.

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My Amazon Review of Waving, Not Drowning by “Barrington Orwell” and Lev Parikian

There must be 17 people in the entire world for whom this book has any relevance. I am not one of them.

I, however, have fallen hopelessly in love with an English, middle-ranking orchestra conductor, and this book was on his Facebook Likes List, and since nowadays I will follow (almost) anywhere my beloved John Wilson leads me, here we are. Why else would I not only purchase, but listen to, Freakin’ 58 Fanfares Played by the Onyx Brass and Geraldo’s Greatest Dance Hits—which nevertheless I have come to adore?

What the argument of the esteemed late fictional dirigent, Barrington Orwell speaking through his still-living amanuensis, Lev Parikian—son of the noted violinist Manoung Parikian—seems to be is that the career of an orchestral conductor is not a happy one. It is of course a hazardous profession, notorious for causing insanity, emotional instability, ruined health and, in at least one case I read about in Slipped Discwhen a woman in Brighton rushed the stage during a performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein and stabbed the conductor with a no. 2 Dixon-Ticonderoga shrieking, “You have desecrated the music of my people!”—homicide. But Orwell, or Sir Barry if you prefer, so reverences the lofty position he himself holds that he places the blame for dirigental woes everywhere but on the dirigent himself: on the uncooperative/disrespectful weather; or concertmaster; or soloist; or composer; or entire orchestra—choose one. Or all. I’m surprised he didn’t bring up Bernstein vs the BBCSO, but maybe the English were right on that one.

Unfortunately, in no way has this slight volume helped me better grasp the mind of my beloved, although it managed to identify his type. When not on the podium he wears neither Armani nor Hugo Boss but rather attires himself in jeans, trainers, horn-rimmed glasses and, because of his preternaturally long arms, blue bespoke shirts. I think he’s about 11 stone. Apparently off the podium he’s a combination of The Scholar and Mister Shouty-Scary. On the podium, in full formal dress, he is a god.

Waving Not DrowningFind my review on Amazon here.

Which brings me to the theory of which I am the author: The conductor exists not for the orchestra, not for the composer living or dead (Good grief! Whoever had that idea?), but for the audience. Whether from a box at the opera or from the floor at the Royal Albert, the conductor is the friend, philosopher and guide we require and as such (except for that dishy second-desk violinist with the golden locks) ought to be our sole focus. Yes, it is a weighty role that demands an enormous amount of conviction and honest purpose in those foolhardy enough to accept it. But remember that it is We, the People, aka The Audience, who ultimately hold a conductor’s success or failure in our own sweaty hands.

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West Side Story Performed by The John Wilson Orchestra and Conducted Oedipally by John Wilson at the BBC Proms, August 2018, for Leonard Bernstein’s 100 Year Anniversary

Oh where do I start? More later.


“Despite his larger-than-life personality and overtly visceral podium manner, [Bernstein] became a master conductor only in the last decade and a half of his life when his conducting style changed and he found a technical physicality that matched his intense musical vision. Simply put, he relied on his baton and hands instead of using his entire body as a beating tool. He focused his music-making. Even Leonard Bernstein, charisma notwithstanding, had to learn the physical art of conducting.”

Harold Faberman
Founder and Director
The Conductors’ Institute
Bard College


 

Lenny ShirtlessBetty Comden with Lenny in the apartment he shared with Adolph Green, circa 1941. Console yourself with this hot pic, people, till I come back and flesh out this posting.

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Alondra de la Parra Conducts The Orchestra of Paris in Darius Milhaud’s “Le Bœuf Sur le Toit”, Philharmonie de Paris, 2015

Have you ever seen a conductor so much in the heart of the music as 38 year-old, New York-born Mexican-American Alondra de la Parra? Bernstein yes, definitely. Carlos Kleiber was also known to joyfully respond to a joyful chord. And this girl, like those fine blokes, has got it all—joy, knowledge and consummate control. On the road to being one of the greats, she is.

Chopin Polonaise in A flat Op 53 Lang Lang - YouTube.png

The title “Le Bœuf Sur le Toit” is that of an old Brazilian tango, one of close to 30 Brazilian tunes, or choros, quoted in the composition. The piece was originally to have been the score of a silent Charlie Chaplin film; its transformation into a ballet was the making of the piece, with a scenario by Jean Cocteau, stage designs by Raoul Dufy, and costumes by Guy-Pierre Fauconnet. There is no real story to speak of, but is a sequence of scenes based on music inspired by Brazil, a country in which Milhaud spent two years during World War I.

The ballet’s premiere was given in February 1920 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, and in turn gave its name to a celebrated Parisian cabaret-bar, Le Bœuf Sur le Toit, which opened in 1921 and became a meeting-place for Jean Cocteau and his cronies.

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