The British maestro explains his passion for MGM and why he believes his home team needs support.
In the musical world today, there are specialists and there are polymaths. Interestingly, British conductor John Wilson is a bit of both with a significant name for American popular music of the 20th century on the one hand and British music on the other. It’s an unusual doubleton, and one that has earned Wilson an enviable reputation, particularly for the Hollywood movie musical themed concerts, which have become something of a BBC Proms staple.
“I suppose I’ve never made any distinctions between one type of music and another,” he explains, sitting back on a couch in his dressing room. I’d say relaxing, but Wilson has something of the coiled spring about him – his racing, encyclopedic brain almost visible behind the steely blue eyes. “I was always taught that the most important thing is to get the style right for whatever you’re doing, whether it be Mozart or Mantovani.” Not that he’s ever done any Mantovani, he adds with a laugh.
Born in 1972, Wilson was raised in Gateshead, just across the Tyne from Newcastle in the North of England. “I grew up listening to popular music of the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, through the radio, through parents, relations, brass bands and local amateur theatricals and things like that.” The classical rep he learned through records. “I do a lot of English music because it was my first love and that music needs advocates, and since Richard Hickox and Vernon Handley died, we have fewer of them.”
In Sydney he’s conducting two programmes, the first of which comprises classic film scores. Discussing the line up I’m surprised to hear him say he’s less involved with this kind of music because of the amount of film music which he thinks is suitable as pure concert music – the works of Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Erich Korngold and others – is very small. “I rarely do it,” he admits. “I’m doing it here because I think the couple of hours worth of music that we have in this concert absolutely justifies being played. It stands up on its own, in microcosm, as a perfect representation of the best of that material. It transcends what film music normally does, which is a kind of musical journalism. Film music does a job, but I think these pieces do the job and more.”
Wilson’s programme includes music from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho and Citizen Kane, Korngold’s swashbuckling masterpiece The Adventures of Robin Hood, Max Steiner’s ultimate romance, Gone With the Wind and Miklós Rózsa’s Roman epic Ben Hur. While we chat about the concert, he’s keen however to draw a distinction between film music and his first love: musical films. “Film musicals, the MGM ones from the ‘30s, ‘40s and 50s, are the kind of, high water mark in the interpretation of that material,” he enthuses, his eyes catching fire with an evangelical glint. “I guess that comes from my greatest love of all, which is songs, whether they be Cole Porter or Schubert. A lot of those famous songs were written for those movies, so by restoring the original orchestrations, you’re actually going back to the Urtext.”
As an interpreter, Wilson believes we are now far enough away from the material to appreciate it for what it is, without any taint of nostalgia. “Most popular music of the period was crap,” he inveighs. “If you look at what was in the hit parade, it wasn’t the theatre songs of Harold Arlen and Richard Rodgers, it was How Much is that Doggy in the Window – in other words, novelty songs.”
For Wilson, the great unsung heroes of the age are the orchestrators (he’s an orchestrator himself, sometimes restoring lost scores by painstakingly listening over and over again to the films themselves. “Basic melodic genius is a completely separate talent from being able to organise orchestral music,” he believes. “Gershwin was the only one who could do it, really. That doesn’t diminish the talents within the studio system in those days. You had a conveyor belt system where somebody would write the songs, someone would write the lyrics, someone would harmonise it so it would work with the orchestra, someone would then orchestrate it, someone would set the dance routine and then it would be sent to the orchestra copiers before the orchestra could play it and the professional singer would sing it.”
That reference to Gershwin is a nod to the John Wilson Orchestra’s latest disc on Warner Classics, the follow up their acclaimed Cole Porter in Hollywood album. As the toast of Broadway in the 1920s, from the start of the talkies the Gershwins were seen as hot property by the movie studios. It was Irving Berlin who once declared “we were all pretty good songwriters but George was something else: he was a composer.” Gershwin in Hollywood showcases the songs that George and Ira wrote for films like Shall We Dance, the Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue, 1952’s Gene Kelly hit An American in Paris and 1957’s Funny Face which came with a score laced with Gershwin hits. The new CD was recorded live last year at the Royal Albert Hall and crackles with the trademark John Wilson energy and sheer love for the music.
Wilson puts the success of many of those Gershwin-inflected movies down to the genius of Arthur Freed and the people he picked and trusted to produce 30 major films in 20 years. “MGM at its peak was producing a film a week,” he enthuses. “It was a factory, and in those days every film made money.” Asked to name a favourite, Wilson puts 1953’s Singin’ in the Rain at the top of his list. “It’s actually watchable,” he explains “It’s funny. A lot of those films have got feather-light plots. They’re great for their set pieces, which is why That’s Entertainment was the best of the lot, because you got all of those sensational numbers without having to sit through the vapid plots.”
As a man who exudes attention to detail, I’m curious to know if John Wilson considers himself in any way part of the Historically Informed Performance brigade? “It’ a bit pretentious to say that about stuff that was written 50 years ago,” he reckons, “ but you’ve got to get the style right. For instance – and this is broad strokes – you have to make a full-blooded string sound; you have to use less bow and more weight in the string sound; you have to use quicker vibrato; you have to have the right sound in the brass and the rhythm section has to bounce in a certain way. Those are stylistic things.”
Wilson understands that style as well as anyone on the planet right now, as do regular players in his self-titled orchestra, but when abroad he considers it his job to steer talented players like those in the Sydney Symphony Orchestra through waters which may be unfamiliar to them. “This music isn’t meat and drink to this orchestra,” he explains, “but within two days they’re playing it to the manner born.”
Steering the conversation around to the British music side of things, we pick up on Wilson’s previous remark about it being his first love. “The first record I ever got was Barbirolli’s English Music for Strings and I knew straight away this was for me,” he explains. “Other people don’t get it at all. I think it’s something in my blood. I can’t explain it – I’ve tied myself up in knots trying to. There’s a vein of wistfulness or melancholy running though it – maybe it’s to do with millennia of damp weather, I don’t know!”
We also talk about the late Richard Hickox and Vernon Handley, two great champions of British music who died relatively close together and which felt like a major blow to the fortunes of a genre. “I’d never, ever compare myself to great conductors like Barbirolli and Beecham,” Wilson suggests, “but I do belong to an honourable tradition of conductors who studied at the Royal College of Music like Neil Thompson and Norman del Mar, so I’ve definitely got some of that in my lineage. Of course, English music is now being taken up internationally by conductors like Sakari Oramo, but I’m proud to be an advocate for the music of my country for sure.”
Over the decades the fortunes of many British composers have ebbed and flowed. Wilson namechecks some favourites – John Ireland, Bax, Bridge, Delius, and then he surprisingly goes back to discuss someone who seldom gets referenced in interviews with the great conductors: Sir Arthur Sullivan. “His music has been played continually from the 1870s to the present,” he says. “It never left the repertoire, but it never gets mentioned. Now there is a composer of astonishing genius. He wrote some of the most beautiful music that’s ever been written, especially some of his slow music.”
Next week will see Wilson rehearse Vaughan Williams and Bax with the SSO – the London Symphony and the epic tone poem Tintagel – while Jonathan Biss plays the piano concerto by RVW’s teacher Maurice Ravel. “Vaughan Williams stands at the heart of English music with those nine symphonies and everything else he wrote. He’s finally getting his recognition as an international composer of great stature. There are others who are significant, but for me Vaughan Williams stands apart, he really does. The Ninth Symphony is much misunderstood – a total and visionary masterpiece. I’ve conducted it nine times now and and it took me six months to crack it.”
Returning to theme of polymaths, I’m reminded that Wilson was conducting Madama Butterfly last week and Mozart’s Requiem the week before that. “I’m doing loads of Copland too,” he says excitedly, following on from his acclaimed recording of the ballets for Chandos earlier this year. “We’ve just done the Second Symphony with the Orchestral Variations. I’m thrilled with that. The Second Symphony is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to conduct, hardest repertoire I’ve ever had to play.”
A man who likes a challenge, clearly. Meantime, it’s a two-week stint in Sydney for Wilson, a brief break from the damp weather that traditionally haunts the British summer. And with a pair of beautifully contrasted concerts ahead, Sydneysiders should get opportunities to hear two sides of a multi-faceted conductor with a great deal to say – and I dare say that glorious Gershwin disc will be on sale outside the venue.
John Wilson’s Gershiwn in Hollywood is available now from Warner Classics