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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The Tippett Quartet Play Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho at Kings Place, London, 2011

Most people* seem to discount the idea that Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho is actually a near-perfect work for strings (given that it was written exclusively for strings anyway) and that, given the right setting, is a very listenable chamber piece that doesn’t need to reference the film. Here’s the Tippett Quartet performing this arrangement by Richard Birchall at Kings Place, 2011.

Tippett Quartet PsychoJohn Mills, Jeremy Isaac, Lydia Lowndes-Northcott, and Bozidar Vukotic: the London-based Tippett Quartet.

* Like Mister Grumble. This is the second-most heated debate** between us: whether or not movie music (for narrative films not musicals) can be considered truly concert-worthy.

** (The most heated debate between us is whether Oswald did it or not. This one gets us both really het up, as one of us has a slight connection with the actual case.)

The leader of the Tippitt Quartet (circa 2011), John Mills, is also the leader of The John Wilson Orchestra to date.

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Camille Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No. 1 in A-minor, Performed by Jacqueline du Pré and Conducted by Daniel Barenboim

On the 12th of September, 2019 my beloved John Wilson appeared at the Koncerthuset in Copenhagen conducting the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, starting off with cellist Andreas Brantelid performing the Saint-Saëns concerto, and finishing off the evening with Holst’s The Planets, which John has perfected to his satisfaction, conducting as he did in 2013 the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in Leeds in 4 of the 7 Planets.

Here’s the Goddess’s chosen one, Jacqueline du Pré, playing the concerto with the New Philharmonia Orchestra, her husband Daniel Barenboim at the podium. In the time they had, they did not squander the gift that was given to them to make music together.

Jacqueline dupre big laugh

 

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Samuel Barber: Violin Concerto, Played by Isaac Stern with the New York Philharmonic and Conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Behold the worst review my bonny John ever got and I cherish it because it’s so on the money. But first things first. Samuel Barber completed this Violin Concerto in 1939; a work in three movements, it lasts about 22 minutes. I’ve got this classic 1964 recording and it’s one of my yummier ones.

Barber Violin Concerto

From Bachtrack: Exaggeration and Disinterest Mar John Wilson’s CBSO Programme

Simon Cummings, 08 April 2019. Great composers—or, rather, their greatest compositions—have a tendency to be able to shine through less than ideal performances. This was the situation that faced us in Symphony Hall last Saturday, though it’s important to stress that the root cause lay not with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, or their Chorus, or with either of the evening’s two soloists, but with conductor John Wilson.

Wilson’s approach to all three works on the programme could be summarised as ‘filmic’. It was as if each piece wasn’t quite adequate on its own terms but needed to be given the kind of superficial gloss that might make it suitable for Hollywood. The resulting effect of this was two-fold: exaggeration of the works’ more obviously lyrical or bombastic high points, and a kind of disinterested flattening of their less show-stopping sequences.

Thus, the contrasting episodes of Copland’s Appalachian Spring felt less like components of a single, overarching continuity than the vagaries of a narrative that kept changing its mind. At its most relaxed, as in the deliciously sleepy, dawn- and dusk-like music with which the works begins and ends, Wilson seemed to have little idea what to do, allowing its inherent prettiness to sound with indifference to pacing, shape and nuance. Only when the material became conspicuously excited did Wilson do the same, leading to a more appealing rendition of the assorted Allegro sections, which were lively and fun. (It’s interesting to note that Symphony Hall’s renowned acoustics, supposedly good for everything, audibly struggle when presented with small orchestras performing tight, crisp rhythms such as those in the Copland, on this occasion making the CBSO sound more than a little swamped.) But in hindsight these only made it more apparent how flat was the rest of the work, with clunky gear changes and a weak sense of connection.

The nature of the material in Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto played much more into Wilson’s wheelhouse. The lyrical first two movements contain much that is redolent of silent film scores, which therefore suited the cinematic treatment they received. The sweetness in the music often felt rather cloying and over-earnest—where Copland had been likeable, Barber seemed to be spending all his time desperately trying to get us to like him–but the sense of dialogue between soloist James Ehnes and the orchestra, clearly heard here as equals, was highly engaging.

The Violin Concerto is a problematic work at the best of times, due to its weird structural combination of two emotionally-charged movements followed by an evidently bolted-on presto finale that appears to stem more from a desire to satisfy the demands of the original violinist than from the same creative impulse as the rest of the work. Yet on this occasion, Ehnes’ enthusiasm in the finale was a huge relief, his breakneck fingerwork rising above the robotic pulse laid down by Wilson. Best of all, though, was Ehnes’ even more unstoppable encore, a performance of Eugène Ysaÿe’s Violin Sonata no.3 that took real risks, resulting in such nail-biting excitement that the concerto was almost immediately forgotten.

For all the issues that had manifested in the Copland and Barber, nothing and no-one can stand in the way of the juggernaut that is Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast. Wilson’s tendency to exaggeration was matched by Walton’s own overblown response to Osbert Sitwell’s libretto. To stunning effect, particularly in the first half of the work: testifying again that the devil has the best tunes, the combination of orchestra and chorus (who, on this occasion, augmented by the University of Birmingham Voices, were simply enormous) during Belshazzar’s unbound, sacrilegious revelries was an absolute riot and hugely involving. Considering the downfall that we all knew was coming next, one almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much.

Bass-baritone Božidar Smiljanić was by turns mesmerising, moving and borderline prophetic as soloist. His take on the introduction to Babylon was masterful, moving abruptly from proudly rattling off a list of valuable commodities to a stern, almost witheringly prolonged articulation of the word “slaves”, concluding with a tender lament for the “souls of men”. Likewise, the almost laughably undramatic moment when the libretto sums up almighty judgement in the wake of all the ungodly merriment in just a single sentence, Smiljanić made profound, as if he were heralding not merely the end of Belshazzar’s days but everyone’s.

Again, though, the music’s more inverted, painful episodes lacked weight, Wilson making them brisk and functional, mere lulls before the storms. When these came, they were overwhelming—how could they not be? But it was just such a shame that the most powerful moments of the concert, such as these, were for the most part in spite of John Wilson’s best efforts, rather than because of them.

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Schelomo by Ernest Bloch, Played by George Neikrug (1919 – 2019) and the Symphony of the Air, Conducted by Leopold Stokowski

Counted among one of the greatest cellists in the Golden Age of String Players, George Neikrug has died, the day after turning 100.

Born in New York, at age 24, Neikrug met D.C. Dounis, a Greek pedagogue, whose revolutionary approach had a profound influence on the young cellist. “Trying to tell you about Dounis’s teaching is like asking me to tell you about a whole science like biology,” Neikrug said. “Dounis put very much emphasis on the most basic things I did like how I played a down bow and an up bow. He would show me how to play a down bow and an up bow and then I would play through a whole piece and he would sit there and practise with me. If he caught me doing one thing wrong I’d have to do it over again so I learned this tremendous amount of concentration…”

It was thanks to his studies with Dounis that Neikrug resolved to devote his life to teaching at schools including Detmold, Oberlin, the University of Texas-Austin and Boston University, whose arts faculty he joined in 1971.

In 1960, Neikrug performed “Schelomo: Rhapsodie Hébraïque“, the final work in Swiss composer Ernest Bloch’s 1916 Jewish Cycle.  with the NBC Symphony at Carnegie Hall and Leopold Stokowski, who described the cellist’s performance as “unforgettable”.

George Neikrug

Thanks to old friend, violist Vivi Erickson, for remembering her former Boston University teacher for me.

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William Walton Conducts His Viola Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra, Frederick Riddle, 1937

The Viola Concerto by William Walton was written in 1929 for the violist Lionel Tertis at the suggestion of Sir Thomas Beecham; Tertis however rejected the piece, and composer/violist/teacher Paul Hindemith gave the first performance. The work was greeted with enthusiasm and brought Lancashire-born Walton to the forefront of British classical music.

William Walton.jpg

In February 2017 my beloved John Wilson conducted the London-based Philharmonia Orchestra in a rendition of the Concert with Canadian-born violist Lawrence Power. 

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