There are 3 naked ladies in this blog. This is one of them*.
“I’m not given to displays of emotion, but when Maria and I met up again [to record the R+H album] we had tears in our eyes. She’s so exotic!” enthused my bonny conductor about this Detroit-born soprano. “I love her—as a person!” Yes, John. I’d love to hear more.
About the DVD recording of Salome, says Toronto blogger John Gilks in Opera Ramblings: “The production is really pretty conventional. There are lots of greens, greys and blue. It’s quite dark and the set is stagey and conventional. Almost all the visual interest revolves around Ewing’s Salome though Michael Devlin’s scantily clad and palely made up Jochanaan is quite arresting too. Narraboth (Robin Legate) is an unremarkable actor and Herod (Kenneth Riegel) and Herodias (Gillian Knight) look uncomfortably like a couple of drag queens. The latter though does manage a pretty effective hissy fit. For the sound reasons mentioned above it’s hard to be sure whether the rather insipid vocal performances by Devlin and Leggate are really their faults. There’s also no change in acoustic when Jochanaan is singing from the cistern which is odd. Riegel and Knight do better at projecting themselves beyond the orchestra and turn in OK performances. The recording, directed by Derek Bailey, is about what one would expect from a 1992 BBC TV broadcast***. The picture quality is acceptable but not great 4:3 with hard coded English subtitles. Sound, as mentioned, is barely adequate. There are no extras and no documentation. This is probably worth having a look at as a record of an iconic performance by Ewing but I can’t imagine anyone would choose it as the definitive Salome.”
*Yup, here’s another exotic nude, just for my beloved John Wilson.**
From Gramophone.com, September 2016: “I’ve always been fascinated in the byways of music,” says conductor John Wilson, picking up the score to Aaron Copland’s Second Symphony and half-studying the typeface while he talks. “Back at college when all my friends were getting in a lather about Mahler, I was more into Lord Berners and bits of Walton that people hadn’t heard for years.”
Wilson is a self-styled anomaly in the conducting world. He’s utterly serious about light music, cheerfully and loquaciously Geordie in a profession that traditionally trades on pomp and grand personas. He’s as fastidious about authentic performance practise as any baroque specialist, but the repertoire to which he applies those principles of original instrumentation and historically informed interpretations is one that only recently earned enough clout to make it into the Proms. If the classical music world now shows respect for the film scores of vintage MGM musicals, that shift in attitude can be largely attributed to two decades and counting of championing by Wilson himself. Because since founding the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, his dedication to the music of Hollywood’s golden age has achieved a two-way thing: on the one side he has enticed fans of light music into the concert hall. On the other side, his attention to detail and the calibre of his hand-picked band have brought new status to music once dismissed as gushy, camp and saccharine.
By giving his own name to his own specialist orchestra, Wilson determined the repertoire that he would be best associated with. And yet in his other conducting positions—Principal Conductor of the Royal Northern Sinfonia and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra Dublin, newly appointed Associate Guest Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra—he is keen to emphasise his aptitude for broader repertoire. “I always took an interest in that exciting time after the First World War,” he tells me by way of example. “And I probably have the biggest satisfaction from getting my hands on Brahms.” His desert island conducting choices? “Oooh, I’d take the Elgar symphonies, the Vaughan Williams symphonies, possibly American music by Copland, John Adams, Roy Harris.” His latest recording is the second in a series of Copland orchestral works with the BBC Philharmonic for Chandos. There isn’t much trace of light music in the jagged edges and sharp punches of the Second Symphony, the Organ Symphony or the Symphonic Ode.
Wilson maintains that there has never been a division in his mind between music that is ‘light’ or music that is ‘serious’, but accepts that isn’t the case for everyone. “The root of my passion is my love of songs,” he says. “Songs of Britten or Ireland or Cole Porter. Ella and Frank singing Gershwin. I just assumed it would all be part of my repertoire and I never put anything in a ghetto. So when we [the John Wilson Orchestra] did our MGM Prom in 2009 and a telly audience of 3.5 million saw that real seriousness of research had been applied to those scores, I think that’s when I felt a big shift in attitudes. My orchestra had spent 15 years learning how to play that music. I put together the performing editions just as any musicologist would prepare Handel or Vivaldi. Maybe it was because it was the the Proms, maybe because it was an orchestra full of incredibly serious players, but somehow we managed to get a lot of people who wouldn’t normally go near that repertoire to sit up and listen.”
Wilson was born in Gateshead on Tyneside in 1972—which, if you do the maths, made him just 22 when he founded the John Wilson Orchestra. “The whole light music repertoire belonged to a couple of generations above me,” he says. “This was the music they danced to, courted to, got married to. A lot of people have a nostalgic connection to it. Some of my professors were sniffy because they were too close to it, because it was the pop music of their youth and therefore something to be scorned at, but that doesn’t exist for my generation. We can see that a Cole Porter song is as serious in its craft as a Brahms symphony.” That’s the kind of bold claim that earned him a few raised eyebrows as a student of composition and conducting at the Royal College of Music, where a couple of teachers told him he should be immersing himself in “proper” compositional techniques.
But even then he already knew exactly what he wanted to get from sitting through those classes in advanced orchestration, exactly what repertoire he wanted to use those tools to excavate. “I’ve produced all my own parts for the Strauss waltzes with all the repeats written out. Heck—I just made the print bigger and suddenly orchestras enjoy playing them because it’s not a panic trying to find which bloody repeat to play!” Wilson is pragmatic about such unromantic things as notation size and syntax. “If the music is printed too small,” he shrugs, “half of your brain gets used up just trying to decipher the stuff. I want my players to be totally involved in the the music. The librarian of any orchestra,” he adds, “is a crucial figure. Unsung heroes.”
We’re talking at MediaCity in Salford, where Wilson has just conducted a lunchtime concert with the BBC Philharmonic and is preparing for an afternoon session recording Copland’s 15-minute Second Symphony of 1933, also known as the Short Symphony. This is not the populist, generous Copland of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo or Fanfare for the Common Man—repertoire included on the first instalment of the Wilson/BBC Phil Chandos series. About that first disc, Gramophone’s reviewer wrote that “Wilson secures superb playing from the BBC Philharmonic… the three ballets receive strongly characterised interpretations, as piquant and affecting in the slower passages as they are punchy and ebullient in the faster ones.”
Now Wilson describes the music on the second disc as “hard as nails” and “totally uncompromising” in comparison. “He had created this instantly identifiable sound—the ‘wide-open spaces’ sound that we all know and love. Nobody had done it before and suddenly loads of other American composers started imitating him. But he was also a proper composer, ferociously accomplished, who developed ideas out of very small cells. He had worked hard as a student of Nadia Boulanger to get his technique into shape. He worked hard every day of his life, and he knew about concision. The Second Symphony is compact and concise, which is never a bad thing… He stops once he’s said enough!”
Wilson is sanguine about the particular challenges of bringing this compact, astringent score to life. “I’ve been trying to analyse what makes it quite so difficult,” he says. “There are plenty of pieces with changing time signatures and rhythmic complexities: that’s meat and drink to orchestral players. But with Copland’s Second Symphony there isn’t a single extra note in the score. It’s like Mozart or Rossini or Mendelssohn in that it’s got to be so perfect for it to work. There’s nowhere to hide.” He looks up and grins. “It’s the musical equivalent of standing in the middle of Oxford Street in your underpants!”
But should this music sound perfect? Has one side-effect of Copland’s wide-open-spaces popularity been a performance tradition that flattens out the edges, softens the harshness? “Possibly,” Wilson acknowledges. “And actually you do want a bit of tussle. We need to play the music in until that tussle becomes something we can do with conviction and style rather than with difficulty. But no, I don’t think that these pieces—the Ode, the Variations, the Second Symphony—I don’t think they’ve been played enough for any performance tradition to have been built up. I’m hoping that by recording them now we can be new advocates.”
Since lunchtime Wilson has changed out of concert dress and into his civvies—jeans, Adidas trainers, untucked checked shirt, thick-rimmed square black glasses. That casualness transfers to the way he works with the orchestra, too. During the session he is brisk, friendly, funny, courteous. He doesn’t waste time and he seems to know what he’s looking for: a sound that is bright and punchy, rhythms that are super-crisp and projection that is sharp-edged, almost metallic. He also seems to know how to get it quickly, with a minimum number of instructions. The physical gestures he makes are notably low key, and when the music hits a catchy rhythm he begins to wiggle. He talks with a smile but he doesn’t crack many jokes.
He’s not an incessant stopper, either: he lets the orchestra play for a good five minutes before interrupting. “Legato, eloquent, bright,” he tells the strings. “But make sure the sound is switched on. It lacks a little ardour. It’s all rather surface. the sound needs more weight.” He reaches a passage where the violins and violas divide desk-by-desk. “We need very fast, very narrow vibrato on each note. Really brilliant. What you just did? That was fine, but it sounded just ordinary.” Later he looks for the sweet spot of clarity and charm. “Can it be marcato and still melodious?” he asks. “Can it be legato and still have clean definition on the lines?” He turns to the violins: “go for a really high-risk top note. A bit of scratch and strain in the sound will do no harm at all.”
During the break I ask whether the lushness and brightness so audible in the first of his Copland discs for Chandos influence the sound he is going for in the Second Symphony. “Sure, a little,” Wilson replies. “Probably most of all in the slow movement. Though I don’t think of it as a luscious sound so much as a very clean sound. The way he scores with gaps in between high notes, low notes and middle notes… We’ve been talking a lot about gaps. So much of his rhythmic trickery comes where you don’t play. He’s brilliant at conjuring exciting rhythms with gaps.”
It is fascinating listening to Wilson work on thorny mid-century symphonic repertoire while bearing in mind his bent for MGM heritage. Does he hear any parallels himself? Does the style he’s developed with the John Wilson Orchestra filter into the work he’s doing here? “Well, Copland was born in 1900 and raised in Brooklyn. There’s no chance he could have not absorbed influences from Harlem, from Gershwin. It’s all there in the music. Put it this way: if I’m conducting a Fred Astaire dance routine, those rhythm have to be executed with great style. The string playing has to be faultless, delivered with real ardour and perfection. The brass playing has to have a certain swagger. It has to be cleanly articulated with a ton of accents. And none of those characteristics would do any harm in Rodeo—they wouldn’t do much harm in The Rite of Spring, either. Basically we’re talking here about playing with commitment.”
And what about the Americanness of the sound, I ask. Regardless of whether each Copland score has gathered its own performance tradition, does Wilson try to capture attributes of a quintessentially American orchestral sound? “Possibly,” he replies. “Copland’s ballet scores are best known in the New York Philharmonic versions conducted by Leonard Bernstein. The thing that stands out to me there is the trumpet sound: totally ballsy—that supreme confidence of all the New York brass playing right down the line, so super-confident and spirited but refined, too, not just a load of machismo. There’s a certain vigour to those Wild West pieces, a certain swagger. Which is not the first adjective you’d use to describe British brass playing. Here we specialise more in gentleman brass playing: warm, neat, very accurate.”
The aim, he stresses, is not to try to imitate that vintage American sound, “but there are stylistic parameters that we have to try to fulfil. It would be a mistake to play these pieces in a completely British way—we have to just go for it. And actually, Copland doesn’t give us much choice. He marks down very clearly what he wants, which means that with a lot of this music we’re leaving the arena of personal taste and entering into being either right or wrong. With the symphonies, if we play 90 percent of what’s on the page then most of the work is done for us. Then we get the luxury of refining the sound, taking the music to places it has never gone before.”
Meanwhile Wilson is also taking his own audiences—the following he has built via his John Wilson Orchestra—to places they have never gone before. I suggest that the gentler start to the Copland series might have helped to lure in some listeners and he laughs. “Well, there is a responsibility there,” he says. “People are paying money so it is really important not to betray their trust and go too far. In general I hope I can programme in a way that takes the audience places they’ll enjoy when they’ll get there. The language of a Judy Garland song is exactly the same as the language of a Rachmaninov symphony, so I feel great about making that leap. Navigating from MGM musicals to Korngold film scores to Copland’s marvellously thrilling Organ Symphony? Sure, that is a nice little trip! And if we play with enough conviction, if we are totally convinced ourselves, then I am sure that people are happy to come with us.” ~Kate Molleson
It actually would hurt me, John Wilson my beloved, if you ever believed I think of you the way MacFarlane thinks of you—as more or less part of his gig rather than as who you are, which is to say John Wilson. Something I’d like to throttle him for but’ll probably go on watching the pre-2013 Family Guy anyway. Nothing personal against your chum.
No, I lie, it’s personal.
About ten, no, eleven years ago the best friend of the son of my (now ex-) friend died unexpectedly in New York, and it was a shock to everyone. My own son, who was the same age, was a big, big fan of his—more than a fan, in fact, he practically worshipped this young actor—and was in tears that day. I texted my friend and we shared our shock and grief. Daniel Day-Lewis stopped an interview, sobbing, “I didn’t know him, I have a strong impression I would have liked him very much…and so looked forward to the work he would do in the future.” I’d so like to have witnessed this young man’s progress on screen and stage through the years myself. He was the new Brando—better than Brando, in fact, as he not only acted and directed but wrote as well. And he wasn’t even thirty. He was handsome and vigorous, he had a beautiful speaking voice. He was the most committed actor I’d seen on screen since Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces.
So there he was dead in NY. On the streets of Beverly Hills, some roving celebrity reporter from one of the gossip shows was out and about getting sound bits for his show, and came across Rob Lowe and MacFarlane. After some genial exchange of bullshit the rover blurted, Did you hear the news from New York? and without a pause went right into giving them the news. Lowe dropped his mask, truly stunned for a moment, and turned human, while MacFarlane drawled almost offhandedly, “We-ell, this is disconcerting…” And at that moment I started to genuinely dislike the calculating little creep. MacFarlane’s an almost supernaturally gifted dealmaker, Stewie’s a pretty inspired animated character, and the guy seems to have a genuine fondness for the old styles…but that just isn’t enough for my scorecard. If you could say that there’s such a thing as a Seth MacFarlane Tolerance Level, mine’s pretty low I guess.
Anyway, I’m less ironical and more earnest than one would assume at first. And I tend to take things like that hard. Not exactly an asset around here.
Gimadieva made her UK debut at the Proms with John and the John Wilson Orchestra in their program Hollywood Rhapsody, which included pieces by my favorite screen composer Bernard Herrmann. I’ve been a fairly knowledgeable fan of Herrmann since my teen years, but somehow I never got around to hearing the entire aria until—yes! yes! are you getting bored hearing this again?—I fell in love totally and completely with English conductor John Wilson and craved to hear all the music that he is part of. To my delight, he backed this brilliant singer well.
Above my bonny John making nicey-nice with a soprano for once: “O cruel!” (Salammbo’s aria) from the film Citizen Kane. Herrmann planned to write an entire opera based on this scandalous Flaubert novel but, daunted by the task, as Mussorgsky and Rachmaninoff before him, never got around to it.
And for good measure, here’s Gimadieva doing Donizetti’s “O luce di quest anima” with The Hallé the way I’d like to have sounded in my last trimester jury at music school.
Anthony Burgess, my Number One Language Guy, was on Dick Cavett’s talk show late one evening during my first year at music school. The host had brought up the oft-told story of how Burgess, when in his 40s, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and told he would be dead in a year; consequently he returned home to England (he’d been in the civil service in Brunei) and was seized by a mania of writing that resulted in his completing a half dozen intriguing novels, all of which are still in print. Oh, and he didn’t die in a year. Referring to his name at birth—he was christened John Wilson, Anthony being his Catholic confirmation name and Burgess being his mother’s maiden name—Burgess commented, “We John Wilsons, we can be busy little beavers when we need to be.”
Which is a remark that came to mind when I fell in love with John—my John, John Wilson the Conductor—and read how he spent 15 years transcribing the “lost” scores of MGM musicals, toting his Sibelius-programmed laptop around, listening to tracks in off moments, plugging in those thirds and fourths and damned glissandos as he heard them, passing on pub crawling or watching the telly to keep working on this gorgeous music…
From GlasgowTheatreBlog.com, 2011: Hooray for Hollywood follows on from the phenomenally successful appearances at the last two BBC Prom seasons and a festive season TV special. It was a whirlwind chronology of the golden age of movie musicals from the 1930s to the end of the studio musicals in the 1960s. Below, the program (YT clips in red):
“During my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s the BBC would regularly screen the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film musicals on a Saturday afternoon. I was instantly attracted to the sound of the MGM Studio Orchestra and, even then, knew that one day I must conduct an orchestra like that! As my musical experience broadened, I was able to analyse what made that special sound. That the Hollywood studio orchestras had vast string sections is a popular myth—the epic soundtrack for Gone with the Wind was recorded with only eight first violins.) It was this sound that I had in my mind when, in 1994, I formed the John Wilson Orchestra for a Concert at the Bloomsbury Theatre. In 2000 our debut performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall paid tribute to the great American composers and arrangers of the past century—Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Johnny Mandel, Paul Weston and others. This led to an invitation to play next door at the Royal Festival Hall and—as part of a concert devoted to the screen composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age—I included a handful of well known songs from the MGM musical films.
“I knew that MGM had been taken over by Turner Classic Movies which had, in turn, been acquired by Warner Bros. I’d read that Warner Bros presided over meticulously preserved archives and that every note of music for their films survived intact. So I wrote informing them of my forthcoming concert, asking if I might have access to some of the MGM scores. I received a reply by return informing me that, while all of the available music materials for Warner films were preserved in the archives of the University of Southern California, the full scores and orchestral parts for all of the MGM productions were destroyed in 1969—for no reason other than that they took up too much space and a new car park was needed. Every note of music for every MGM film was gone—used as landfill for a Californian golf course.
“Well, not quite. For copyright reasons, MGM was obliged to hang on to some sort of musical documentation—a record of who composed what, so that royalties could be apportioned correctly. So it was with great excitement that I travelled to Hollywood to spend a week inspecting what the USC archives call The MGM Conductor Books. For every production—musical or otherwise—a short score, or “piano-conductor” score, would be prepared, from which the music director could conduct. These were condensed versions of the full scores and contained most of the information necessary for recording purposes and for fitting the music to the picture. Full scores seem to have been considered too unwieldy: too many page turns that could be picked up by the microphones.
“The MGM conductor books exist in varying degrees of completeness; for example, The Wizard of Oz is sketched mainly on two staves with scant indication of harmony (and virtually no instrumentation), whereas Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is laid out over six staves like a miniature full score. Easter Parade and Gigi are all but lost—only a third of each score survives; High Society is 95 percent complete and has the most lucid sketches. In general, the piano-conductor scores for the later musicals seem to contain more information than their earlier counterparts; a state of affairs brought about by Johnny Green, who was appointed Head of Music Department in 1950 and who insisted on the highest standards of music copying and preparation.
“The conductor books are all beautifully copied by a handful of top-class copyists who must have been on permanent contract at MGM for at least 20 years. While these documents have provided the basis for my reconstructions, most of the real work is done by listening over and over again to the soundtracks. I once spent an entire Sunday reconstructing four seconds of music from the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz. There are many things the conductor doesn’t give you, inner parts buried deep in the orchestra—also, only rarely did the vocal or choral parts make it into the conductor books.
“Reconstructing these scores is a chore, but a joyous one. The songs are all in the top class, written by the greatest tunesmiths of the day. The arrangements are, in my opinion, the finest ever made in the field of musical comedy. The performances on the original soundtracks are just about the best you’ll ever hear. The unbeatable playing of the musicians in the MGM Studio Orchestra is a constant inspiration, not only to me, but also to the musicians of my own orchestra.”
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 in Gateshead, tell me if it worked.