Sorry for my shaky handwriting but while listening to this I had a fantasy that gave me the giggles: John being interviewed by my favorite ohne palones, Julian and Sandy. (This more-than-usual musical episode of Kenneth Horne’s 1967 radio show also includes Rambling Syd Rumpo, the Fraser Hayes 4 singing off-key not on purpose, and the screamingly funny takeoff skit, “Young Horne with a Man”.)
Now John, I know that you know, and I know that you know that I know, that my long-distance lovemaking to you is being observed by a few; not many, just a few. So this rundown is for them, love:
Here are the main points I took away from this podcast: “What I do try to do as a conductor is carry my sound around with me… It’s almost—I don’t really feel comfortable talking about because you know music is basically a doing thing and not a talking thing… My deepest musical creed is wrapped up with how an orchestra sounds…” Which pretty much confirms what I’ve suspected these two years about him.
John, light of my life, fire of my loins, I respect your process.
My father, who would be 115 years old in 3 days, went to the movies with me only a couple of times. The first was for Taras Bulba (United Artists, 1962). I remember him getting a particular kick out of the ride of the Cossacks scene, thrilling Franz Waxman music and all.
The second time was for Tora! Tora! Tora! (20th Century Fox, 1970). The movie house in Columbia Heights, just over the city line from Northeast Minneapolis, was within walking distance, I walked it all the time, and could still get in for 50 cents because at 15 I still looked 12. For some reason my father ended up not only driving me the few blocks, but after I’d found my seat and the lights went down I was astonished to notice him come in and sit down beside me.
“Dad, what are you doing here?” I whispered loudly. “You know, the Japs win in this.”
“Not for long,” he answered cheerfully, which is about as close as anyone in our family got to talking about the 7 December 1941 attacks and the general brutality my mother, then a teenager in Bangar in the province of La Union, had to face in an occupied country.
Bangar in those days was rather like Nouvion in ‘Allo ‘Allo—a little town situated a ways from the capital but near the sea, a hotbed of resistance. When you read about Bangar here, just remember: that kid who escaped, which resulted in occupying troops burning down the place, was one of my cousins. When the guards marched him to town to be executed, his family, through looks and gestures from a distance, pretty much gave him the word that they expected him to “take one for the team” i.e. let himself be shot; but at the last moment, as family legend goes, he grabbed the officer’s sword and in the confusion was able to get away into the forest. And so as feared came the reprisals.
A shadow still hangs over the de la Peña family.
Taken at a banquet of an old Filipino-American association my dad was part of (that’s him under the picture on the right; keep forgetting he still had hair before I was born), one of about a hundred around at the time. Note the date: only a couple of weeks before Pearl Harbor. Note also the Philippine flag on the wall. The Philippines wasn’t yet a sovereign nation but a Commonwealth and didn’t achieve independence till 1946.
Meanwhile in California my dad, who had come to the States a young man in 1927, was engaged to a woman from St Louis he eventually COULD NOT MARRY because—are you ahead of me on this?—HE WASN’T WHITE!!! Yes! The MISCENEGATION LAW of the State of California—which by the way was NOT REPEALED UNTIL 1962—prohibited them and God knows how many other California couples from legally joining, forcing them to travel to other states where they could. (Recently read this happened to that fine actor Dean Jagger and his Chinese-American fiancee in the early 50s and I’m curious to hear other people’s stories).
How my dad, residing at last in Minneapolis, eventually found and married my mother in Manila is another story, and it’s a doozy. I’ll tell it on their 70th wedding anniversary next year.
Now to my beloved John Wilson, who was born the day of my father’s final birthday, in 1972. John, I’m not saying we’re psychically linked, but about a month ago in the middle of defrosting the refrigerator I think I got a weird emotional flash from you where you were being right annoyed… I got the impression it might’ve been about The John Wilson Orchestra, you were waiting for some kind of answer re your orchestra and not getting it, and I actually felt your annoyance… As I say, it was weird, like listening in on a party line…
That’s all I could make of it. But it’s enough to make me want to give you something special for your birthday. So…I’ve tried this only once, with an old boyfriend, and I think because I was really, really into him it worked. On the actual day of your birthday, John, I’m going to try to send you an energy shot. [UPDATE: Just did it. Think I got through. 25 May 2020 2AM UK time.] Until then, Happy Birthday, light of my life, fire of my loins. And if you and I ever make that date at the Metropole, tell me if it worked.
Before we get to what I think will be a nice and fair assessment of John Wilson’s new recording, a word to some people.
I have always been aware of the tacit agreement that exists between my screen persona Simona Wingand her fans, but let me now take this apt opportunity to state my position clearly: You all have my blessing to do whatever you want with me in your fantasies.
Because whatever you want to do with me in your fantasies is nothing compared to what I want to do withJohn Wilsonin mine. So, go for it.
Now on to Korngold.
I didn’t realize this was still a thing in the music world, but apparently opinions continue to be strongly divided as to whether Erich Wolfgang Korngold—a true heir, by the way, to The Great Mittel European Romantic Tradition—deserves inclusion in the canon some snooty farts call the Classic Repertoire. You know, the one that has Bach and Beethoven and all those other cats. It’s no secret that when you mention the name Korngold, the average music lover’s first thought is of upmarket movie soundtracks (Anthony Adverse—The Adventures of Robin Hood—The Sea Hawk—Captain Blood) and likely never gets around to the fact that Korngold wrote, among other things, the most luscious symbolist opera of the 20th century, Die Tote Stadt, in 1920, and a hell of a gorgeous violin concerto 25 years later: I, II, III. (Click here to subscribe to the RTE Concert Orchestra channel and support them.)
So it seems like every generation there has to be one nut who comes along and says, Let’s run Korngold past the hoi-polloi again and see if he’ll fly—and if you think I’m talking about you, John Wilson, you’ve got a swelled head. Because the nut I’m talking about is the nut in the CIA. The anonymous nut who got The Company to fund an enterprise back in the early 70s called “The Golden Age of Hollywood Music” and hence to elevate Korngold to the status of Hollywood Royalty—but through his film scores and his film scores only.
But that story later.
We’re here right now not just to size up a new Korngold recording, but to honor the decades-long musical relationship of Andrew Haveron, violinist, former Leader of The John Wilson Orchestra, current Leader of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and conductor John Wilson, whose career in orchestra building started at the age of 22 and hasn’t stopped since.
Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D, their latest Chandos release, was going to get my attention with or without the Winsome Lad ofLow Fell anyway, as I’m a sucker for this particular style and era of music. But I was glad to learn about their actual friendship as well; for me it explains why the perfect communication that’s so evident here between Haveron and my John (and through him, to the estimable RTE Orchestra) has some of the magic of Barenboim+du Pré, back in the brief days when those two were cooking hot with Elgar.
This is soloist Haveron’s star turn: a warm, fresh, intimate—revelatory even—rendition of a piece that, let’s face it, is kind of like the “Nessun Dorma” of violin concertos. But this is John’s success too. So much of my bonny’s gift for conducting Korngold, as we know, has to do with his insistence on a technique his PR people call “shimmer” but is actually wrist vibrato on strings, a technique in fingering I learned about and taught myself when I was 14 because I liked the sound it made, although when the orchestra teacher put it down for sounding cheap and sloppy I quit it.
But I know the sound of shimmer and you do too. The John Wilson Orchestra practically patented it. John himself still calls for it whenever he conducts Tchaikovsky. It’s in all the high-toned movies of the 1930s (examples above). And it would have been in Rouben Mamoulian‘s classic film musical Love Me Tonight had The Old Man (my old boss, incidentally) been able to make Paramount’s musical director Nat Finston understand what he was talking about when, in a certain musical scene, he said he wanted “crying violins”. But I could tell what he was talking about when he told me this story 46 years later.
Disappointing to hear that John won’t be doing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall in London this month. So, to cheer everybody up, here’s the FULL 2-HOUR PROGRAM of my John and The John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms, 2013. That’s Jane Monheit, John, and Matt Ford below.
The full program (with remarks as they come to me):
20th Century Fox Fanfare (from the studio, 1933) / Alfred Newman
Street Scene (from the 1931 film; Sam Goldwyn/United Artists) / Alfred Newman
“Confetti” (from Forever, Darling; MGM, 1956) / Bronislaw Kaper Just wish that this really delightful period piece weren’t associated with the stupidest cinematic use of James Mason (a fine English actor and fellow cat-loving chum of my old boss, Mamoulian) ever concocted and omigod—is this one of the pieces you reconstructed, John? Pleeease tell me, whenever you and I keep that date at the Metropole.
Laura (suite; from the 1944 film; 20th Century Fox, 1944) / David Raksin
Psycho: A Narrative for String Orchestra (from the 1960 film; Paramount) / Bernard Herrmann
– “An Affair to Remember” (from the 1957 film; 20th Century Fox) / Harry Warren, Leo McCarey (the film’s director), Harold Damson
– “Something’s Gotta Give” (from Daddy Long Legs; 20th Century Fox, 1955) / Johnny Mercer
– “Young at Heart” (from the 1955 film; Warner Bros) / Johnny Richards, Carolyn Leigh
– “It’s Magic” (from Romance On the High Seas; Warner Bros, 1948) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn
– “The Tender Trap” (from the 1955 film; MGM) / Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn
– “My Foolish Heart” (from the 1949 film; Samuel Goldwyn/RKO) / Ned Washington, Victor Young
– “Three Coins in the Fountain” (from the 1954 film; 20th Century Fox) / Jule Styne, Sammy Cahn
– “Love is a Many-Splendored Thing” (from the 1955 film; 20th Century Fox) / Sammy Fain, Paul Francis Webster
– “That’s Amore” (from The Caddy; Paramount, 1953) / Harry Warren, Jack Brooks
– “Que Sera, Sera” (from The Man Who Knew Too Much; Paramount, 1956 / Jay Livingston, Ray Evans
– “All the Way” (from The Joker is Wild, 1957; Paramount) / Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn
A Place In the Sun (suite from the 1951 film; Paramount) / Franz Waxman
Tom and Jerry (from the MGM cartoons; 1940-58) / Scott Bradley
But first, let’s get that other business out of the way concerning John’s WSS attempt of 2018. I HATE HATE HATE to see The Race Card being played. Usually I try to avoid having to address the issue but sometimes it’s right in your face. If you don’t know what I’m talking about you can read about it here. Then read about the outcome here.
Know what I think? In the past few years I’ve begun to believe, and I’m probably coming late to this, that when Orwell was writing about Big Brother, he was really talking about the BBC. This is probably sooo evident to a lot of people, but I’ve been paying steady attention to BBC for only about the last ten years and I’ve watched it devolve in ways previously unimaginable to me, so highly did I once esteem this radio/TV/internet broadcaster. So when I tell you I suspect that it was the Beeb behind that inane shuffling of sopranos and no one else, I do have a basis. (But not to go into that now. I’ll get to it when I talk in detail about Oklahoma!—and The Race Card—again.)
To get back to John, The John Wilson Orchestra, and West Side Story at the Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms, 2018. Why the story above tells another possible story: One – soprano announces her withdrawal from the BBC Proms (that is, her reneging on her contract with the BBC) in April; two – five months later in August the new soprano is announced, a blatantly bogus attempt at more politically-correct casting, but anyway; three – at the same time, and only then, the show’s musical format is, for the first time in wide advertising, properly described as the official concert version. Which, let’s face it, makes the racial makeup of any of the singers totally irrelevant. Do you hear me squawking over Kim Criswell doing “Bali Ha’i”?
So in all this hoo-ha there’s John, who has absolutely nothing to do with the matter but nevertheless possibly, probably feels just a bit tainted by it, and who goes to his beloved orchestra with a “Gentlemen, ladies, let’s rise above this, shall we?” attitude, and a “Let’s give it all we’ve got!” kind of gungho-ness I last saw in Back to Bataan.
Because that’s how it came out in the music. Listening to the concert online, I got that same unsettling feeling you get some nights when you suspect your boyfriend’s unusually poundy lovemaking isn’t actually directed at you. It was almost unbearable to take. Even Mister Grumble left the room. Before leaving he pointed an accusing finger at me. “This is your John Wilson,” he intoned darkly. “He’s not mine,” I answered. “He belongs to England!” But I couldn’t pull off that Vivien Leigh delivery so that bit just died.
But you know, I think that’s the crux of the matter, John being English and a Geordie and therefore too pigheaded to truly understand the American idiom. That, and Big Brother Beeb breathing down your neck, can cramp anyone’s sense of freedom, freedom of course being the American idiom.
I’m assuming, of course, that John, vaunted musicologist that he is, truly wants to understand the American idiom.
Of the 2013 concert, said Joshua Kosman in the SF Chronicle: “One of the great revelations of Thursday’s dynamic concert performance by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony was just how remarkable the score sounds in isolation… Bernstein’s creation stood more or less alone as a compendium of all the musical references swirling around in that great musical clearinghouse that was his mind.”
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.
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.
The flick Holly Does Hollywood is fictional, of course, a fictional movie in the world of a real movie called Body Double, which was conceived and executed by the man who in an ideal world would be king of Hollywood, Brian De Palma.
De Palma’s affectionately knowing, utterly non-patronizing visit to pornland is a bit of a fantasy, of course. No flick I ever did or saw had a budget big enough to afford a mirror ball, let alone an MGM-sized dance floor (though Damiano’s later movies came close). But scale aside, De Palma understood the thing that kept nearly all of us, cast and crew, jazzed while we were being pushed to get out product, and that is: When you are making a porn movie, you are making a movie.
Now, every so often I’d remember this. I’d be in the middle of a take, and like a klieg wash switching on I’d suddenly become very aware of everything around me: the lights, the mikes, the crew, the director, the luxuriously gorgeous surroundings (half my films were done in those sumptuous private homes in Marin County), the smooth-skinned, sweet-smelling people touching me, the amused audience (most of the homeowners would hang around watching us film)—and the realization would thrill me so perceptibly I would be open to the moment and I’d like to think it showed up in my performance.
Which is the same jazzed-up open-to-the-momentness I thought I saw in John Wilsonone evening when I was trawling online for classic show tunes and stumbled onto my bonny in a 2012 BBC-TV clip, commanding the podium in the middle of the Royal Albert, surrounded by an orchestra of eighty and an audience of 6,000, conducting a hot piece of Jule Styne and shimmying like a brazen hussy. And when I say shimmying like a brazen hussy, understand: I’m the brazen hussy he was shimmying like. I fell in love with him because I recognized him. I got his number. Or so it felt like…
Featured in Holly Does Hollywood is the Liverpool group Frankie Goes to Hollywood, who made their initial splash in 1984 (dig it) with the best stroke song ever written, “Relax”. Of course it was banned by the BBC.
I don’t mean to read a lot into this, maybe he did have a migraine or a toothache at the start. But I think more probably he’s thinking differently (that is, more “seriously”) about things nowadays. Eight years have passed between those two appearances, after all, and I’m sure he’s gone through scads of internal changes during that time and some interesting decisions we’ll all find out about, sooner or later. It’d be sad if it’s John himself who thinks it’s now “unseemly” for him to shimmy in public anymore (I’m way not the only one to have noticed his gorgeous limey shimmy); but it would be a sadder thing if John’s taking the nudge-nudge hints and advice of others to heart.
It was one evening after dinner a couple of years ago, and I was idly doing what I usually do after the washing up, which is trawl the internet for bits of interesting music. They’d been coming to mind either from the latest endorsements of FB friends, or from my furthest memories… Anyway, this particular evening I was remembering a poor joke (at actress Rosie O’Donnell’s expense!) made on an old, old TV cartoon show that stuck in my mind because the joke relied on the assumption that “The Trolley Song” was corny and/or second-rate.
Only thing, I don’t remember “The Trolley Song” as being corny and/or second-rate. In fact I remember the number in the movie, Meet Me in St Louis, as being rather gorgeous and lush and yummy, and not just because Judy Garland sang it. (Come to think of it, that joke also sounded like a cheap dig at gay culture, which fries me.) I hadn’t in years heard the complete version since it was played on the soundtrack [more]
Dearest John Wilson, Conductor, I don’t care whether some guy at Warners made you up because he had to optimize the assets in his department, you’re real enough to me. And it doesn’t matter a damn bit how you got the gig. What matters is you did the work. Above: Kim Criswell and John Wilson rehearse with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. [Photo by Eric the Fish King, 2012]
Orchestrator for this song—as well as the entire MGM musical Meet Me in St Louis—was Conrad Salinger. “He had a very individual, sophisticated sense of harmony,” said our John in a 2013 interview with the LA-based Film Music Society (of which I am a member). “It’s those very subtle and exclusive touches that he gave to those numbers that set him apart… Little touches of instrumentation, like alto flutes and French horns, that gave those pictures a sound world all their own. His specialty was that high-class production number, the theatrical presentation of a popular song, or a balletic development of a number. In the hands of Salinger, you could be listening to Debussy or Ravel. He’s never going to be a household name, but that doesn’t diminish his stature.”
“The Trolley Song” from Meet Me In St Louis (MGM, 1944) orchestrated by Conrad Salinger reconstructed by John Wilson played by The John Wilson Orchestra conducted by John Wilson from the album That’s Entertainment! A Celebration of MGM Musicals Kim Criswell, vocalist Warner Classics, 2012