Interview: conductor John Wilson

The Proms plays host to tunes from Hollywood musicals

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Just what does it mean to be invited to play at the Proms? Conductor, arranger and musical scholar John Wilson isn’t one to hold back. “Are you kidding me? It’s like being invited into the kingdom of heaven. It’s beyond wonderful. But to be there with my own orchestra? That’s like the single greatest honour you could have bestowed on you, an absolute dream come true. I’m a very lucky man. I’m too lucky. Honestly, I am.”

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Maybe, but such invitations aren’t given out on a purely benevolent basis. It’s precisely because the John Wilson Orchestra’s programmes of meticulously researched and re-presented material from the golden age of film musicals were such hits during the 2009 and 2010 seasons that he has been invited back again – with this year’s Hooray for Hollywood Prom proving to be one of the hottest tickets.

And that’s not just because it represents the hot-soapy-bath option within a schedule otherwise heavy with cold showers. “OK, it’s not obscure, atonal music that’s difficult for audiences to make sense of,” allows Wilson. “But hey, it’s not mere cosy nostalgia either. The original songwriters, lyricists and orchestrators were all maddeningly gifted. We’re talking undiluted excellence here. It’s all first-class material.”

Now 39, he’s been conducting leading British orchestras for years and, as a passionate advocate of English music – Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Delius and others – he has self-evidently serious credentials. Yet he also has a populist streak, one that makes him a rising star within the crossover world, and recently signed a recording deal with EMI.

Wilson first absorbed film soundtracks by osmosis as a Gateshead schoolboy, his mother favouring TV re-runs on a Saturday afternoon as a backdrop to the ironing. These days he’s the go-to man when movie execs want the scores for such classics as Singin’ in the Rain or High Society re-creating in all their glory. “Because, believe it or not, the originals got junked,” he explains. “Pure vandalism!”

So what can this year’s Hooray for Hollywood audience expect, whether in the Albert Hall or at home? “Well, you’re looking at a time span that runs from 42nd Street in 1933 through to Hello, Dolly! in 1969 and our concert will serve as a potted history of all that happened in between. To reflect accurately that era and all its major composers, film studios and stars… It’s like a 3D jigsaw, an almighty challenge.

“You cannot imagine the amount of work that goes into doing just one arrangement for one number in a programme that’s more than two hours long. Just proof-reading the parts you’ve written for almost 100 players can take a week, as you’re talking millions upon squillions of notes. But oh, how those notes sound when they’re played back in the style that was intended, as if by one of those terrific, old-style Hollywood orchestras. Breathtaking!”

Despite the fact that those squillions of notes are arranged and played with such meticulous care, Wilson says there’s still room for spontaneity on the night. “There has to be, or the performance would be dead. You just don’t fiddle with the score itself. I read recently of someone adding cadenzas to Gershwin’s piano concertos… I mean, what’s that all about? It’d be like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa.”

His personal highlight from the programme? “Blimey! Where to start? It’s all marvellous. But if pushed, I’d point to two little gems from Doctor Dolittle, the 1967 film starring Rex Harrison. It was an almighty flop on release, but the songs When I Look in Your Eyes and Something in Your Smile [cut from the final soundtrack], by Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley, and arranged by Alexander Courage, are absolutely ravishing.”

One more thing, and for the benefit of the philistines among us… Er, what exactly is the role of a conductor like himself on such a heady evening? Wilson laughs: “Well, on a basic level, you’re beating time, holding it all together. But any truly professional orchestra can do that for itself, so what it looks for in addition is someone whose authority for the repertoire in question they recognise and can respect. They’ll play all the better as a result.”

There is something of the zealot about him when he talks about his musical endeavours and certainly he isn’t shy of impressing upon you the effort that it takes to achieve excellence. “I work my a*** off,” he’ll say, only to follow up with, “I work b***** hard…” in the next response and, again, the next. But when you have a talent that, though it bases you in London, means you’re forever in demand and travelling the world…

“It can be a solitary life. The easy bits, if you like, are the rehearsals and the concerts, but you have to spend so much time alone beforehand doing all the prep. Luckily, I’m bookish by nature and I like that. And you know, my life really is a dream come true. Like I said, I’m too lucky.”

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Prom-lovers are too, and later this year, so will be audiences across the country. “Yep, we’re taking the whole caboodle on tour in the autumn!” he says.