|John Wilson. Photo credit: Chris Christodoulou|
In recent years, the John Wilson Orchestra has become a beloved musical institution. A regular fixture at the Proms since 2009, the band’s fans include Sir Simon Rattle – who recently joined on timpani at a JWO concert in Berlin. But behind the musical joie de vivre is a serious aim to celebrate the craftsmanship of the Great American Songbook and champion Hollywood and Broadway’s neglected gems. Ahead of a major UK tour culminating at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 December 2016, JOHN WILSON spoke to Jon Carvell:
“Got to get it right. Simple as that. I’ve got to be good enough to bring out the best in them.” That’s the thought process for John Wilson when he steps on stage in front of thousands with his orchestra. “If it goes better than expected, you’ve got the interval to work out how you’re going to keep it going. If it doesn’t go as well as you want it to, you’ve got the interval to work out how the hell you’re going to get it back!”
Wilson’s latest tour focuses on music produced between the mid-1930s and late-60s, from dramatic background scores by Korngold, Waxman and Max Steiner, to famous movie songs and the jazz influences of Nelson Riddle. As he puts it, “We’ve left the gates wide open in terms of repertoire.” Within this broad church, one of Wilson’s guiding principles has been Academy Award-winning songs and soundtracks. Back then, Hollywood attracted the best composers and arrangers money could buy. Wilson explains, “There was a kind of permanence about the whole set up, people going in and doing the same job for 30 years, and with the Academy Awards there was a kind of continuity.”
There is certainly a sense of permanence about Wilson’s orchestra these days: working with the same group of top players over many years has allowed him to hone the orchestra’s sound. “There’s nothing that beats playing together, ever,” he explains. “It’s about playing in a soloistic way. If everybody’s playing at full commitment then nobody’s going to stick out.” Developing the orchestra in such a way has been a long-term investment, but it’s certainly paying off. “We live in this instant culture. The real stuff takes time. We’ve been playing together for 21 years - that’s a lot of maturing of techniques and styles and abilities.”
Wilson made headlines recently with the JWO’s Berlin debut, but he was apprehensive about the performance at first; unsure of how the music was going to translate. “We were kind of uncertain, but we played the overture and they went crazy and I thought ‘Oh, we’re alright then!’ They got more and more in to it, and when Rattle came on and played the timps for the encore there was a riot!” As if endorsement from one of the most celebrated conductors of our time wasn’t enough, Wilson is still keen to dispel any lingering doubts audiences may have about the artistic merit of Hollywood and Broadway classics. “These marvellous players I have wouldn’t turn out to play rubbish. They’re serious players from all over the place: leaders of orchestras, players from famous string quartets. They all recognise the inherent greatness of this music.”
Wilson cites Harry Connick Jr. as someone he’d like to work with in the future. “He’s got a quality in his voice which is totally authentic. He’s a complete package in terms of sound and rhythmic feel and interpretation.” Wilson is also contemplating involving Barbara Streisand, and given the Orchestra’s recent success it doesn’t feel like these collaborations are out of the question.
I wonder who Wilson’s mentors were and who helped him get started. He immediately mentions his school music teachers in Gateshead, as well as his conducting teacher Neil Thomson at the Royal College of Music. “He made me do a lot of really boring donkey work - practising proper conducting techniques - which I hated at the time but I’m grateful for, for the rest of my life!” Key personnel in the orchestra also shaped Wilson’s approach, from the sound of the orchestra’s leader Andrew Haveron, to drummer Matt Skelton (“one of those people who never wants to stop learning”).
Away from the podium, Wilson’s tastes are suitably broad. One of his all-time favourite discs is Barbirolli’s recording of Elgar’s Second Symphony, “for its connection between the man and the orchestra”. Other CDs he has in rotation include a Maria Callas box set, some Yehudi Menuhin and the Australian contemporary classical composer Brett Dean. Wilson will conduct a piece by Dean with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain in January. He is a passionate advocate for the ensemble, which he describes as “one of the best things about music in this country.” His advice to young musicians starting out is that they should do what they really believe in. “Let your love of the music be the thing that drives it forward. Don’t take things on before you’re ready to do them properly. Make your mistakes out of the spotlight, so that when you get the chance you’re absolutely ready for it.”
John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra
Live in Concert – Music from the Movies
16 November Bristol Colston Hall
17 November Poole Lighthouse
20 November Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
21 November Gateshead Sage
22 November Nottingham Royal Concert Hall
23 November Cardiff St David’s Hall
27 November Birmingham Symphony Hall
28 November Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
29 November Leeds Town Hall
30 November Manchester Bridgewater Hall
01 December Brighton Dome
03 December London Royal Festival Hall
I Was Doing All Right a special bonus single from the John Wilson Orchestra featuring Louise Dearman, will be released on Warner Classics on 11 November.