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 demand 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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