John, mi vida— It may be likely that we’ll actually meet up sometime or another, since I give not only to the Academy but to the College as well (although I’m thinking of becoming a Friend of the College this year because one, Dr Adlard at the main office has been very kind, and two, I’d like to visit the RCM’s brand-new museum), and so perhaps my few dollars might wangle me an invitation to one of those “Meet the Fellows” wine-and-cheese thingies you as a Fellow are encouraged to attend. If that happens, how about coming over and saying hi to me? I won’t bite. I forgave you for Oklahoma! a while ago.
To those of you patiently awaiting the release of my text+audiolinks album JOHN WILSON AN ENGLISH CONDUCTOR: Sorry, you’ll have to wait a little while longer—my pdf software, which I’ve had no problems using when converting shorter works, is giving me grief because the collection of John’s work has grown sooo voluminous I’m going to have to make cuts. But where??? Now aiming for it to come out in time, in some shape or form, for my bonny lad’s fiftieth birthday. On va voir.
The 19th episode of the 8th season of the long-running Korean-wartime sitcom M*A*S*H entitled “Morale Victory” (clip available on my YT channel) is mostly pretty silly—but! Get through all the A-story shenanigans and there’s a surprisingly tight and moving B-story about a wounded soldier/concert pianist which culminates in a 3 1/2 minute scene that always makes me cry. David Ogden Stiers (Juilliard, ’72) plays Dr Winchester and James Stephens plays his patient.
Above: Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D Major (1938) performed by the Royal College of Music Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Wilson, with piano solo by Nikola Avramovic. Plus watch the clip on my YT channel here.
(Winchester wheels David into the squalid hut that is the officers+enlisted club)
David: What are we doing here, doctor? I don’t want a drink.
Winchester: Good. Because you’re not gonna get one.
(Wheels him close to the piano)
David: What the hell is this all about?
Winchester: Please, David. (from manila envelope takes out sheet music) I’m sure you’ve heard of these, eh?
David: (glances at them) Pieces for the left hand. Of course I’ve heard of them. What are you suggesting now? That I make a career out of a few freak pieces written for one hand?
Winchester: Not at all. I won’t make any pretense about your physical ability to play concerts. That’s not my point. Are you familiar with the story behind the Ravel?
David: No, and I don’t really—
Winchester: It was written for an Austrian concert pianist named Paul Wittgenstein. He lost his arm during the First World War. He embarked on a long search to commission piano works for the left hand alone. Composer after composer turned him down. But he refused to give up. Finally, he found Ravel who, like him, was willing to accept this great challenge.
(Beat; David considers this)
Winchester: Don’t you see? Your hand may be stilled, but your gift cannot be silenced if you refuse to let it be.
David: Gift? You keep talking about this damn gift. I HAD a gift! And I exchanged it for some mortar fragments, remember?
Winchester: Wrong! Because the gift does not lie in your hands! I have hands, David. Hands that can make a scalpel sing. More than anything in my life I wanted to play. (sighs) But I do not have the gift. I can play the notes, but I cannot make the music. You’ve performed Liszt, Rachmaninoff, Chopin. Even if you never do so again, you’ve already known a joy that I will never know as long as I live! Because the true gift is in your head and in your heart and in your soul. Now, you can shut it off forever, or you can find new ways to share your gift with the world, through the baton, the classroom, the pen. (points to sheet music) As to these works, they’re for you, because you and the piano will always be as one.
(Winchester sees a spark of interest in David and moves him closer to the keyboard. With a look of determination, David begins to play the Ravel. Winchester’s face registers intense emotions, including joy)
“‘The Beatles didn’t read or write sheet music, so surely they didn’t understand music theory…?’ Well, no. Reading sheet music is only part of what it means to understand music theory,” says Bennett. Which gets me fascinated enough to want to ask my beloved John Wilson how he and McCartney were able to musically communicate when they did Ocean’s Kingdom together…
And just so you don’t think I’m always down on bonny John, who was himself brilliantly educated at the Royal College of Music, here’s his orchestration, written in 2002 when he was 30, of Howard Goodall’s score for the TV movie The Gathering Storm, a bit Elgarish. And here’s the orchestration he wrote when he was 28, of Richard Rodney Bennett’s music for the TV mini-series fantasy Gormenghast, which won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Score in 2000.
A recent article mentioning John in 4barsrest, an online publication that serves brass instrumentalists, reminded me of the fact that I never did get around to listening to and writing about my beloved conductor’s recording with the Onyx Brass, which I bought 2 years ago this month. I am listening now.
Church of St Jude on the Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, London, where the Onyx Brass rehearsed and recorded this in 2017. Above John: Malcolm Arnold’s “Railway” Fanfare, my personal favorite. NOTES for Fanfares (Chandos, 2018) can be found here. There is no other instrument in a symphony orchestra that calls attention to the manmade-ness of its actual sound than the horn. Strings can mimic the human voice; woodwinds the sound of wind in the trees; percussion can conjure up a hail storm… But you tell me, can the sound of human lips vibrating a piece of metal sound like anything but what it is?Well, two years makes a difference. I fell in love with John two years ago 2018, that spring. That summer of 2018 was The Bernstein Summer. The summer my beloved John tried to oedipally murder Leonard Bernstein before an arena of cheering thousands; 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, e.g. 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 this collection of 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 (see above); 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 yes, 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 two 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.
Maurice Ravel described his work, written in 1919: “Through whirling clouds, waltzing couples may be faintly distinguished. The clouds gradually scatter: one sees at letter A an immense hall peopled with a whirling crowd. The scene is gradually illuminated. The light of the chandeliers bursts forth at the fortissimo letter B. Set in an imperial court, about 1855.” In the accompanying podcast bonny John asserted that “La valse” is about social disintegration. Another reason for me to get into his head. Above: Audio of the entire piece.
Mournful noodling distinguishes this piece. I remember the movie—adore the movie—but just don’t remember the music at all. Australian-born, Royal College of Music graduate Pheloung, who died last week at the age of 65, got some considerable write-ups for having been the composer of the popular Inspector Morse theme which, again, isn’t to my taste.
Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman tug at our hearts in this off-beat romance.
I’m guessing the author of Waving, Not Drowning (which I reviewed on Amazon and below) borrowed the name for his fictional conductor, Barrington Orwell, from Pheloung. It’s a small world over there.
On Thursday 16 May 2019, His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, President of the Royal College of Music (RCM), held a special gala concert at Windsor Castle. The concert showcased some of the RCM’s most acclaimed alumni, including Sir Thomas Allen, Dame Sarah Connolly and Conductor John Wilson, performing alongside Maxim Vengerov, Polonsky Visiting Professor of Violin, and the talented young musicians in the RCM Chamber Orchestra. The evening included a performance of George Frideric Handel’s Overture to an English Opera (here played by the Little Orchestra of London).
“I think I’ve done my last batch of film music,” says bonny John. Interview starts at 9:50. (Update 5 March 2019: Damn, the Beeb yanked this podcast! Will replace the link if they ever bring it back. To make up for it below are some downloadables.)
Included with the interview in their entirety: Met soprano Joyce DiDonato sings “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (Rodgers & Hammerstein); the famous barn-raising dance in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Gene de Paul, Alexander Courage), and “I Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that ineluctable John Wilson Orchestra way.
Above bloodily hardworking John: Kim Criswell, the Maida Vale Singers and The John Wilson Orchestra tear into the Gershwin brothers’ “I Got Rhythm”.
From a 15 June 2016 article in The Sydney Morning Herald:
It’s rare, if ever, to hear a kind word said about James T Aubrey, the ruthless former CBS executive hired in 1969 to turn around the stuttering fortunes of the MGM movie studio. In a four-year reign he slashed staff numbers, cancelled many projects and sold off the company’s archive in a sale that, famously, included Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz.
“They had no intrinsic value,” was Aubrey’s icy comment at the time.
And along with that brutal act, incredibly, he also ordered the destruction of many of the film scores in the company’s archive, trashing music from legendary films including The Wizard of Oz, High Society and Singin’ In the Rain.
These gems might have been lost forever were it not for the passion and dedication of English conductor John Wilson, who for the past 15 years has dedicated much of his time to re-creating them.
Now he has re-scored some 200 separate numbers from MGM musicals from the 1930s to the early ’60s purely by ear, a task he was driven to largely out of necessity—he loves the music and wanted his orchestra, the John Wilson Orchestra, to play it.
“I had to do it,” he says simply.
He’s also quite frank about the tedium of minutely reconstructing each part. “First and foremost, I’m a conductor—it’s all I do really,” he says. “I don’t like writing music out but I have to. It’s a pain in the arse! It’s hours of toil.
“I do love hearing it back—I only do the numbers I think are really sensational—but sitting listening to four seconds of music on a loop for half an hour just to get one bass clarinet part—is that going to be anything other than just necessary?”
One might then expect Wilson to join the chorus of Aubrey critics but he is surprisingly generous towards the man who presented him with a lifetime’s work.
“It would be easy to say James Aubrey was a vandal but I think there were a lot of people around then who had no idea that this was worth keeping,” he says.
The pace at which the studio system turned out films left little time for those involved to consider their longer term significance.
“If you had said to anyone in the 1930s that what they were creating was art they would have laughed at you,” says Wilson. “It was entertainment designed to make a profit. Nobody was archively minded. A lot of the scores were an unfortunate casualty of that prevailing attitude. It would have been a case of, ‘Who wants a load of old crumbly pages’?”
Wilson’s passion for “good quality light music” sprang from listening to the TV and radio when he was growing up in Gateshead in the 1970s-80s.
After an extensive apprenticeship playing piano, arranging music and conducting for amateur dramatics, pantomimes and other productions he went on to study in London.
“By the time I arrived at the Royal College of Music at 18 I was fairly hands-on and practical,” he says. “There were never any divisions for me between David Raksin, Max Steiner and Erich Korngold and Strauss, Mozart and Brahms.”
Now he is working alongside his long-time friend and collaborator, Sydney Symphony Orchestra co-concertmaster Andrew Haveron, bringing his favourite light music to Sydney audiences.
Haveron has led the John Wilson Orchestra since its inception.
“Andrew knows how to play this music better than anyone on the planet. That’s a real game changer,” says Wilson.
On a program that also includes music from Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and Star Wars will be Erich Korngold’s music for 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, starring Errol Flynn.
Wilson’s face lights up. “It is,” he says, “the greatest movie score that has ever been written. I never get past how impressive it is.”
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.
Performed at the 1800-seat Fairfield Halls in Croydon. If you look fast you’ll notice 2nd violins leader Sir Neville Marriner (at the time former professor at the Royal College of Music, recent founder of the chamber orchestra St Martin in the Fields, and to-be music director of the Minnesota Orchestra). Note that touching moment at the end when the members of the LSO refuse to rise, at Bernstein’s insistence, for the applause of the audience, instead remaining seated and applauding Bernstein themselves. Now that’s respect.