First published in Gramophone, 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.”