“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” by Martin and Blane, Orchestrated by Conrad Salinger, Reconstructed by My Beloved John Wilson, and Sung by Judy Garland

The song first appeared in a scene in Meet Me in St Louis (MGM, 1944). Divided into a series of seasonal vignettes starting with summer, 1903, the movie relates the story of a year in the life of the Smith family in St Louis, Missouri, leading up to the opening of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (more commonly referred to as the World’s Fair) in the spring of 1904. In a scene set on Christmas Eve, Judy Garland’s character, Esther, sings the song to cheer up her despondent five-year-old sister, Tootie, played by Margaret O’Brien.

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For more Judy, Conrad Salinger and bonny John, go to my post below on “The Trolley Song”.

John Wilson Interview (with Music!) at the BBC Studios in Salford, 12 November 2018

“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. Plus I just put links to the YouTube cuts below—these are the ones the podcast used.)

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’ve Got Rhythm” (George and Ira Gershwin), all played in that ineluctable John Wilson Orchestra way.

John Wilson Interview 2013

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.”

The MGM Jubilee Overture Arranged by Johnny Green, Reconstructed and Conducted by John Wilson, and Played by The John Wilson Orchestra

MGM’s best-known music director arranged this piece in 1954 in commemoration of the studio’s 30th birthday. And since 2004, when my beloved John Wilson and his eponymous orchestra first played this reconstituted medley at the 2,900-seat Royal Festival Hall, it has gone on to become sort of their signature piece, which they’ve played all over the world from Sydney to Berlin. I can’t imagine how John was able to reconstruct the score directly from hearing this lusterless film short, but my darling has the gift of patience and commitment.

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One of those rare moments when John conducted without his baton, which fell out of his grasp but was retrieved seconds later by an alert string player. Berlin, 2016.

Now….right. Because this is turning out to be the second most clicked-on post on my blog (the first most clicked-on being the one about Noli Me Tangere, the Filipino opera based on Jose Rizal’s classic novel) I’ve decided finally to take a few minutes to come back to this posting and add the names of the composers and lyricists as I promised—and bear in mind, I’m doing this pretty much from memory. (I was the night solfeggist at ASCAP, remember?): “Singin’ In the Rain” / Nacio Herb Brown; “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” / Cole Porter; “Broadway Rhythm” / Nacio Herb Brown; “The Last Time I Saw Paris” / Jerome Kern, Oscar Hammerstein II; “Temptation” (shades of Tony Martin!) / Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed; “Be My Love” (shades of Mario Lanza!) Nicholas Brodzsky / Sammy Cahn; “The Trolley Song” (with the Judy sound) / Hugh Martin, Ralph Blane; “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” (more Judy sound) / Harry Warren, Johnny Mercer; “Donkey Serenade” / Herbert Stothart, based on Rudolph Friml; and “Over the Rainbow” (the Judy sound of all Judy sounds) / Harold Arlen, EY Harburg.

The last two numbers, “Donkey” and “Rainbow” were obvious tributes to Green’s late predecessor as music director, Oscar winner (for The Wizard of Oz score, which John reconstructed by ear), Herbert Stothart.

Deleted: 2 bars plus “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” / Frank Loesser and John, I’d really enjoy a little chat with you regarding, among other things, your fellow musical reconstructor Philip Lane’s comments one of these days.

 

Hooray for Hollywood Overture Orchestrated by John Wilson, Conducted by John Wilson, and Played by The John Wilson Orchestra, So There

For their show at the 2011 BBC Proms, inconveniently titled Hooray for Hollywood, John and The JWO perform here an overall satisfying medley of tunes from the pictures, tunes selected, arranged and orchestrated by my self-satisfied darling himself. Starting with John’s cribbing from Ray Heindorf’s execrable arrangement (that hard downbeat!) of the Gershwin brothers’ 1919 “Swanee” (Jolson turning in his grave), it does get better: “Lullaby of Broadway” by Al Dubin and Harry Warren, very nifty and swingy; Rudy Friml and Herb Stothart’s 1924 “Indian Love Call”, a lot more lyrical and moving (he included the birds and the waterfall!) than you remember it (especially when leader Andrew Haveron takes the soulful melody); Jerry Kern and Yip Harburg’s glorious 1944 “Can’t Help Singing” (written for Deanna Durbin); Kern and Ira Gershwin’s 1944 “Long Ago and Far Away” (Howard McGill on tenor sax and Matthew Regan on piano—I’ve never heard it played any lovelier): Frank Loesser’s 1950 “Guys and Dolls” done in Big Swing style; then, in a weird leap, “Chim-Chim-Cheree” by the Sherman brothers 1963 (for which our John cribs 2 bars from Shostakovich’s Jazz Waltz No. 2); and ending with “Hooray for Hollywood” from 1937 by Richard Whiting (who wrote “On the Good Ship Lollipop”) and Johnny Mercer.

Hooray for Hollywood,
Where you’re terrific if you’re even good
Where anyone at all from Shirley Temple to Aimee Semple
Is equally understood
Go out and try your luck, you might be Donald Duck
Hooray for Hollywood

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(Dates are of composition, not the date of the movie.)

Rating this clip, I’d say because it contains John’s own actually-pretty-good arrangement it’s one of the better clips of The JWO (although I would’ve swapped the timpani for a little chord coloring at the beginning of the “Swanee” melody).  He seems to have nailed down the Andre Previn sound in his strings, which is just fine by me. Plus extra points for 7:40, where my self-satisfied darling shimmies like a brazen hussy yet again.

John Wilson on Sarah’s Music, Berlin, September 2016

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Here’s Sarah Willis’s 2016 interview with John and key members of his own eponymous orchestra where his technique in bringing out “The Hollywood Sound” is discussed. Discussion of his string technique with Sarah and JWO’s first violinist starts at 5:40.

The Story So Far; Or, Conductor John Wilson—His Limits

Anyroad, like a good Dr Watson I have compiled a list:

JOHN WILSON – HIS LIMITS

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Knowledge of/affinity for/talent with:

  • English Light Music – Affinity natural; knowledge vast; repopularized Angela Morley, Malcolm Arnold, Arnold Bax, Edward Elgar, Edward German, Eric Coates, Robert Farnon, Hubert Parry, etc etc etc; recorded over a dozen albums of English light music with Naxos, Chandos etc; wrote arrangement of Fantasia on British Sea Songs for Last Night At the Proms, 2003
  • English Light Music, Gilbert & Sullivan Division – Creditably conducted Yeoman of the Guard at the Royal Festival Hall in 2009 and Ruddigore in 2010 (my favorite G&S, as “Basingstoke” was the safeword my boyfriend and I used during bondage games); creditably (I’m sure) conducted a concert performance of Trial by Jury with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, spring 2019
  • Classical Repertoire – Special affinity for Rachmaninoff. Has recorded so far 3 albums in a set of Copland, which doesn’t interest me right now. Creditably conducted Beethoven’s Pastoral as well as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez with the RTE Orchestra in Dublin. But Mahler. Yeh, I’d like John to eventually work up to Mahler’s 2nd (which TONALLY is up his alley). Only by the time he does get to it years and years from now I’ll probably be dead…
  • Classical Repertoire, English Romantics Division – Creditably conducted Walton, Delius, Britten; deep affinity for Ralph Vaughan Williams (it’s that Sehnsucht, baby)
  • Opera – Creditably conducted Madame Butterfly for the 2016 Glyndebourne tour; creditably conducted Porgy and Bess fall 2018 at the English National Opera; creditably conducted Massenet’s Cendrillon at Glyndebourne, summer 2019
  • Film Music – Creditably conducted “British Film Music” for the 2007 Proms; transcribed by ear complete MGM “lost” movie musical scores including The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis and Singin’ In the Rain, resulting in 350+ (John’s count as of 2016, although his count confusingly goes up or down with each interview) pieces of programmable material (for the Proms, for example)—many of which are now of course part of The John Wilson Orchestra repertoire—while the complete scores are now available to orchestras worldwide for symphonic and live-to-screen concerts
  • Big Band/Big Swing – In his early 20s John cut his teeth on this type of music, starting with his stints conducting his Royal College (he’s a 1994 alumnus)/Royal Academy colleagues in the afternoon tea dance at London’s famed-for-its-tea-dances hotels, the Grosvenor House and Royal Park (Times music critic Clive Davis gave the young students a “golden”—John’s word—review) plus The Boatyard, a trendy restaurant in Essex; recorded 8 dance/swing albums for Vocalion; nominated for Grammy 2005 for the soundtrack of the biopic Beyond the Sea (which is really the first time I heard The JWO but didn’t know it)
  • Jazz – John has absolutely no idea what jazz is, yet recorded a thoroughly awful and dishonest album entitled Orchestral Jazz
  • Broadway and the Great American Songbook – DON’T get me started here. I’m blogging about this below.

All the rest is just Cantara trying to sort out where bonny John fits into her inner life. Which as it turns out is in every nook, every cranny…

Part One above or here.

Monty Python and Invasion of the Charioteers, Conducted by John Wilson at the 2013 BBC Proms Of Course

Nice going Leopold, you really shot your wad (7:33). But what an overblown piece of music, worthy of its parodic use by Monty Python (“Knightsbridge” and “The Dam Busters” being other pieces of grand music parodied by the Pythons).

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Don’t get me wrong, I adore most of Miklos Rosza. But it seems to be so typical of The JWO to end their show —Hollywood Rhapsody they called it—with another barn blaster. Still, you get to hear The Grand Organ.

Actually I’d like to have heard the other pieces on the program, particularly David Raksin’s quietly nuanced “Laura”. I did manage to find a clip of the JWO doing their rendition of Bernard Herrmann’s aria from the fictional opera “Salammbo” in Citizen Kane that introduced the incredible Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva (she hits that high D) to western audiences. So that’s good.