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.
JI: The way you talk about working on these texts – it sounds closest to the kind of excavatory work done by early music scholars.
JW: Yes, I know, it is!
JI: But some early music scholars might view this music as less than worthy, perhaps…
JW: Oh, I don’t care. A lot of people say that. But who cares, I’ve got an orchestra full of the best players in the land who are queuing up to play it. I’ve never met a musician ever who was snobbish about this music.
But I take the scholarship really seriously. When I restore these scores I look for every available source, do all my homework, make absolutely sure that nothing exists that I should know about before I start work. I’m determined to get every note exactly as it was finally decided upon. And I’m lucky because the main documents are the recorded performances and that’s the last word.
JI: But how far in terms of performance practice – and obviously you’ve got the recordings – do you take the research? Do you talk to people who were there?
JW: I have. I had a long chat to André Previn once, and to John Williams who played the piano on some of these scores. Both told me about the great orchestrator Conrad Salinger. Previn gave me notes on the source materials because I had quite a lot of piano parts from which I restored the orchestration. But there was quite a range – Salinger would write his arrangement on four staves, then he’d give it to the orchestrator Robert Franklin who would orchestrate it on 32 staves. And then those 32 staves would be reduced to the three on the parts that I’ve got! So what I’ve got isn’t actually Salinger – it’s Salinger orchestrated by Franklin and then reduced.
So Previn told me a lot about how it worked, and then John Williams told me about Salinger himself – whom he knew very well. He revealed that towards the end of his life Salinger was taking in any old work he could get, TV shows and things like that – he’d been so used to the luxury lifestyle of writing eight bars a week for MGM, when the impossible deadlines of TV came in John Williams used to do some of them for him!
JI: In recording, the voices are set relatively far back.
JW: Yes, that’s true, we discussed that. The engineer and I decided that we didn’t like that thing you often get in opera recordings where the voices are so far forward that you lose much of the orchestral detail.
JI: Theatre musicals are always voice-led. In this recording it’s the orchestra first. Is that because you feel that’s how they were written?
JW: Well they were written for recordings, for recorded performances for the films. So you could do things you can’t do in a pit. In all of those Robert Russell Bennett vintage orchestrations the drums and the brass don’t play underneath the voices, they only play during the dance routines. So you’re much more limited with theatrical orchestrations than you are in the movies because you could mix anything the way you wanted to.
That said, the orchestrators in the film studios didn’t take liberties. They didn’t put the alto flute as a solo above the whole of the rest of the orchestra just because they could. But they certainly were capable of producing really elaborate orchestral backings that, unless you amplify the singers, aren’t going to work in a live performance.
JI: The composers had much more freedom to elaborate on the main melodies and seems to me that in doing that they get much closer to jazz than theatre orchestrations.
JW: They’re less foursquare, the arrangements, than in theatre orchestrations. If they sound closer to jazz that’s a consequence not only of the orchestrations but of the playing. Because the orchestras in the movie studios were in effect American dance bands with strings and winds. So the trumpets and trombones and saxophones of these movie orchestras would have all been with Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw and Glenn Miller and would then have gone to the West Coast to work when the big bands started out.
And there were different sorts of arrangers for different sorts of routines. So you’d get Conrad Salinger for a big production number but Skip Martin – who’d been in the Glenn Miller band – did Fred Astaire dance routines often and those sorts of jazzier numbers.
JI: Is there a set pattern, of variations on a theme? The basic thing that jazz is expected to do is to state a theme and then create variations around it.
JW: The theme and variations thing comes in certainly in this repertoire when the choreography kicks in. Because they had to put the tunes through several hoops to fit the choreography, and that was the development of the material.
The orchestration is so sophisticated. Many or the orchestrators were French-schooled. Salinger studied at the Paris Conservatoire with Paul Dukas. Another arranger, Al Sendry, studied with Schoenberg. They had real pedigree, these guys.
JI: When you’re dealing with such complex orchestrations and such a big orchestra do you find you have to really work at it, as a conductor?
JW: No, the scoring is so neatly done that unless there’s a special effect it tends to balance itself with little work. I don’t want to say that these orchestrations are formulaic but they tend to use the orchestra in a set number of ways. And once you get into the playing style – which is easier said that done, it’s taken me 17 years to get an orchestra together that can play these things – the adjustments come fairly easily.
JI: Is that true for the musicians as well, because there must be a temptation to get carried away.
JW: There is. You have to get a sound established and then pare it down. I’ve spent 17 years creating a sound with this orchestra and now I’m trying to trim it down and hold it back. Because it’s very easy to go too far the other way.
JI: Laurence Olivier used to say that directors would be shocked in rehearsals because he’d throw everything out there and then pull it back, the idea being that if you show an audience the limits of what you can do, you’re lost – the sense of potential is hugely important.
"That’s Entertainment: A Celebration of the MGM Film Musical" is released by EMI Classics on August 29 – which is also the day of John Wilson's 'Hooray for Hollywood' Prom concert.