The conductor on his new disc of MGM music
What is a young age for a conductor? It’s getting ever younger, I’d suggest. John Wilson is knocking on the door of 40 and has already accomplished a lot. Yet his track record in fine recordings of English music has been dwarfed by the massive popularity of his work restoring the soundtracks of classic MGM film musicals. Now he is a mainstay of the Proms season, has a new contract with EMI – and is even seen by some as the populist new face of classical music.
Talking to Wilson, though, one gets the impression of a scholar. An enthusiast, to be sure, but a scholar and kind of musical archeologist – as he leans forward, earnestly and seriously answering questions. He loves talking seriously about music which, ironically, is often not seen as serious music. Rubbish, says Wilson. Be it Gershwin or John Ireland (he calls English music “my greatest love”), all great music is worth frowning over. Even when it makes you tap your toes.
James Inverne: Your new album, "That’s Entertainment", focuses on the MGM musicals. Where does this music sit in the canon of American music though?
John Wilson: George Gershwin, the preeminent American songwriter, is the Schubert of the last century. You could argue that the emotional range is slightly more limited but in terms of artistry and craft those songs written by Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter and the rest are so accomplished and so lasting, they’re the great songs of the 20th century.
JI: But Schubert created operas in microcosm almost – on a small scale though epic in emotion. And everything about these songs is much more extravagant. Or are you saying that the melodies – at heart – the songs are actually quite simple?
JW: You mustn’t get the settings, the orchestrations and arrangements – which were just the mechanics of producing music for theatre film – confused with the actual songs, the piano copies. Because you could almost say the same thing about “The Man I Love”, that it has a depth to it and a simplicity at the same time. Gershwin said he wrote four songs when he got up in the morning just to get the bad ones out of his system, incidentally. There was a major quality control there.
JI: Classical music and opera are often charged with appropriating things that aren’t really classical just to get audiences in. But you’d presumably argue that these things have always been part of the same family and that the classical canon was the pop music of its time in the same way.
JW: Certain traditionally built musicals, to nick a phrase from the writer Alexander McCall Smith, could definately have a place in the opera house. Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, if properly cast, is a masterpiece of operatic dimensions. Carousel has a quasi-operatic grandeur to it. I’d rather hear a first-rate musical of that ilk than a third-rate opera being dragged out as a vehicle for flashy singers and there are quite a lot of those still knocking around the opera houses.
Besides, Carousel opened on Broadway with a 39-40-piece orchestra. Look at things from a different angle – if we don’t present these pieces in the opera house now, where else will they be performed in the authoritative forms that the authors set down? Because the commercial theatre usually can’t afford to. They need to be heard in the Urtext. If we don’t mount them with opera companies certain masterpieces we just won’t hear properly ever again. Which is reason enough!
If we view the pieces on your MGM disc, Singin’ In The Rain and the rest, as centre of that repertoire, is there a movement that subverted that? Classical music at the time after all had the Pierre Boulez/IRCAM school which consciously sought to find a different direction from the mainstream. Was there an equivalent in this music?
JW: It’s a very interesting question. You’re basically looking at a fork where the gap between classical music and popular music suddenly widens. In popular music in the mid-1950s, say – we have to put this in a social context – suddenly the younger generation is presented with a music which is emphatically their own and not of their parents’ generation. Rock’n’roll comes along and it has an atavistic, raw appeal that is attractive to a generation that has been dragged through a war.
But by the time you get to the 1960s there’s the whole social revolution and the new music comes with the new generation. And by that point popular music seems to get less interesting, musically. The interest carries on in jazz – that’s where the popular song continued developing and the harmonic and melodic forms became progressively more interesting.
When rock’n’roll comes in you got record companies clapping their hands because for the first time they could make a record with four people rather than 40. So that’s good news for the dissemination of this music – it’s cheaper, people are buying it. And for the first time in hundreds of years you get people writing their own material. The person singing the song is writing the song. So you no longer get the conveyer belt of expertise, whereby person A writes the song who gives it to person B who writes the lyrics, who gives it to person C who does the orchestrations who goes to person D who’s the singer. But this line of experts produced great material.
JI: So things broke down after that?
JW: It changes. The emphasis is on the performer, often on the social and political context.
JI: But this repertoire didn’t have a long development period afterwards because the focus shifted? Jerry Herman told me once he doesn’t compose anymore because he felt the age of good tunes is over.
JW: I completely agree with him. We threw the baby out with the bathwater when we abandoned lots of those traditions. When we stopped building on traditions. And we lost a lot of skills.
JI: Are you interested in the whole Kurt Weill school of that era – Weill was on a different track to Gershwin and the rest, swimming upside down under the ice, as it were. Was he the Boulez of this music?
JW: Weill is on his own, really. It’s more European-sounding.
JI: You might say that Kander and Ebb picked it up with Cabaret and Chicago.
JW: In a pastiche way. Weill is Weill. It’s less manicured, there’s a rawness, even in the orchestration and then in the performing style.
JI: Which is interesting because Gershwin et al are very sleek, very polished.
JW: Highly polished, but the movies were – the sets and the hairstyles and the performing styles, it’s all part of creating an illusion. It’s all synthetic.