Although the BBC Proms are renowned for bringing many of the world's greatest classical artists to London for a two-month-long festival, the concert that drew the most attention last year was – quite unexpectedly – a programme of songs from the classic MGM musicals of the 1930s, '40s and '50s. The man behind it all was John Wilson, the Newcastle-born conductor who has spent years reconstructing many of these great scores – which include The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and An American in Paris – so that they can be performed again in their original orchestrations.
Yet Wilson has many strings to his bow. He's the Principal Conductor of the Northern Sinfonia, which is based at Gateshead's gorgeous modern concert hall, The Sage; he regularly conducts the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras; he's a regular on Friday Night is Music Night; he orchestrated Sir Richard Rodney Bennett's score for a BBC production of Gormenghast, for which he won the Ivor Novello Award for Best Film Score; and he was in charge of the music for Beyond the Sea, Kevin Spacey's biopic about Bobby Darin.
Wilson's current engagement is a new departure: he's making his debut with Opera North in a new production of Gilbert and Sullivan's little-known Ruddigore. It's the first time he's performed with an opera company, but it's clear that he's a theatre animal, and the critics have been raving about the production – Tim Ashley in The Guardian has even given it five stars out of five, and described it as 'one of the great Gilbert and Sullivan stagings'. I caught up with Wilson in between performances to ask him about his approach to the piece, and also about his future plans.
'I grew up with it, and I've always loved it' says the conductor when I ask him why he's now conducting Gilbert and Sullivan. 'I did a lot of it when I was a kid, with local amateur groups. I've always thought of it as the starting point of modern American musical theatre. You'd have to have a wooden heart not to be affected by Sullivan's music.'
We all know the big G&S hits like The Mikado and The Pirates of Penzance – so why is Ruddigore less well-known? 'It's tricky to stage,' Wilson replies. 'The ghost scene in the second act didn't work on the first night of the original production. Also, the first act is very sombre in a lot of respects. But I think it's got some of Sullivan's best music in it. Just after The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan were at the height of their powers. The ghost music is some of Sullivan's best music for the theatre, in my opinion. And Mad Margaret's Aria is one of the most ravishing things he ever wrote.
'Opera North's production has been very careful to avoid the accretions that have occurred over the years – that's the case both for Jo Davies, the director, and I. We've gone back to the original text, and I think it comes up fresh as paint.'
Why has the production been such a success? 'We've had absolute faith in the text. One of the earliest questions people kept asking was, "Who have you got to update the book?" And Jo Davies said she would no sooner get someone in to rewrite Gilbert than she would to rewrite Oscar Wilde. It just needs to be well directed, well directed, well sung and well played.
'We've spent a lot of time in rehearsals on the text. People think of Oklahoma! as the first musical in which the songs propel the narrative, but all the way through Ruddigore the songs are completely interwoven with the drama. And I think that a crucial part of the success of this production has been getting the text across to the audience. That's helped us to communicate the clarity of thought behind the text, too.'
What's the challenge of conducting this piece? 'It's not straightforward in any way, shape or form. It's an incredibly tricky piece. Apart from the technical things like keeping the robust quality of the music in a slow 6/8, the most important and difficult thing is making sure that every single word of the text is heard. Everything has to be spot on; it's not just a case of getting the tempi and balance right. A couple of the reviews hinted that they thought the patter songs were a notch too slow, but then in the same breath they commented that you could hear every word of them. That might be because we've hit on tempi that allow us to convey the text!
'There again, in our favour with Sullivan, everything's beautifully scored. You can always hear the orchestra – he never overscores. I think that's the crucial thing. And the lightness of touch, obviously. It needs to be well articulated and well defined, and you need to get the sparkle into it.'
I ask Wilson whether doing a G&S piece with an opera company results in a more 'operatic' performance than might otherwise be the case. 'I think what you have to aim for is a sort of middle ground,' he responds. 'A lot of these roles weren't written for opera singers – they were meant for what we might call "musical comedians". We've tried to sing it legitimately, but in certain of the numbers, the text takes precedence over the music. That's something we've worked on together. The dramatic impact of the song mustn't suffer just because you want to show off your lyric baritone. I have to say, the cast is so young and talented, as well as very flexible. They've risen to all of these challenges, and we've not had any stylistic issues. They've taken it all on board!
'It's my first time working with an opera company – I've done musicals all my life, and concert performances, but I've never done an operatic piece in the theatre. It feels like I'm suddenly working in 3D rather than 2D!' He also says he enjoys going to the opera enormously, and 'skips off to a dress rehearsal' whenever he can. Would he come back? 'If they invite me, sure thing!'
Wilson's portfolio involves orchestration, arranging and conducting. What does he think of as his main activity? 'I enjoy doing all music – I've never made the kinds of divisions that many people seem to have to make. I'm doing Szymanowski and Rachmaninov in the next couple of months, and then I'm doing Rodgers and Hammerstein with Kim Criswell and Brent Barrett with the CBSO.
'If I had to fill in my profession on a form, I would put "conductor". But I'm a musician first and foremost. It's a bit like having several rooms in the same house: I've always written arrangements and reconstructions, and I think that's a service, really, for a lot of this music because it wouldn't exist otherwise. It's music that I love: the MGM music that I did at the Proms last year is music that I've loved all my life. It's a labour of love.'
And why was that Prom quite so successful? 'It's a combination of a few things, I think. People are familiar with the general outline of the repertoire – they know the tunes and they've seen the films, so they're aware of it. And it worked perfectly in that setting. It was scheduled on the television on a Saturday night at a time when people were in, and they stayed tuned in. We had about 80,000 letters in total after the concert, from people all over the country.
'The thing that particularly came across was how good the orchestra was, and how much the players seemed to be enjoying themselves. It was a very serious orchestra, filled with star players from all over Britain and Europe. I think that such a virtuoso orchestra playing music which was written for the finest musicians in the world at the time could never not have an impact. The fact that it had a bigger impact than I thought it might was a pleasant surprise. I received fan letters every day for the rest of the year about it, and I'm still receiving them.'
The public is clearly dying to hear more of both this repertoire and these performers, and evidently Wilson is only too happy to oblige. 'We have a UK tour with my orchestra in November, which I'm looking forward to. We want to make recordings, and we have plans for that. We've also got invitations to festivals for the rest of the year, so we're certainly capitalising on it.'
Wilson has also just become co-Principal Conductor of the Northern Sinfonia in Gateshead. 'They've divided the post up into several parts, with Thomas Zehetmair as the Music Director. In addition to light music concerts, I'll be doing programmes of straightforward symphonic repertoire. There's an audience for all kinds of music up there, so I want to put various aspects of my talents to use.'
Last summer, the Sinfonia put on a magnificent concert of My Fair Lady starring the veteran actor Anthony Andrews as Henry Higgins. Happily, it's the start of more to come: 'We did two performances – an afternoon and an evening – and we played the entire score from beginning to end, with ne'er a cut in sight. It's part of a series we've started up there, in which we do semi-staged performances of classic musicals where we play every note of the score in the original orchestration. We're doing Show Boat in July, and the plan is to do one every year.'
But in spite of Wilson's growing success and fame, music is a lifelong passion rather than the means for becoming a celebrity. 'I'm not terribly ambitious. I've always loved music and I was very lucky to be encouraged as a kid. I didn't have any form of training until I was in my teens, but my mother gave me a very basic introduction to the piano, and I was encouraged by my music teachers at school. I started playing for amateur theatricals, and then someone became sick and couldn't conduct, so I did it. I did some pantomimes, where you have to do orchestrations for the forces at your disposal. It all started from there, really!
'I then went to the Royal College of Music as a percussionist, because that's what I studied at school, then I changed to composition and conducting. I formed an orchestra while I was at college, and that was the beginning of forming the John Wilson Orchestra. By that time, I'd done quite a lot of conducting in the north, doing amateur shows and G&S. Then I studied conducting at college, and I'd always had a genuine passion for light music. So whilst I might have been pigeonholed for several years as a conductor of light music, it did mean I was pigeonholed for something, and that gave me the chance to have a career.'
Last November, he closed the BBC Concert Orchestra's year-long celebration of British light music with a complete performance of Johnny Mercer and Andre Previn's The Good Companions that was performed in Watford and broadcast on Radio 3. 'I love that piece!' he enthuses. 'It was a real labour of love for me – it took me a year to put it back together. In 1974, the show was rescored for amateur uses. They took all the lovely woodwind doubles out, as well as one of the trumpet parts, and they added violas. I knew that this wasn't the original orchestration because of a note in the vocal score, and because there are things you can hear on the original cast album that weren't in the score that was available. I spent forever trying to track down the original full scores, and it seemed like they didn't exist.
'When I eventually received in the post a big box of materials marked 'Original West End Parts', I couldn't believe my luck. And they were about 80% complete. So I spent a year making an edition from them, filling in the gaps and making sure that it was immaculately laid out. We put it together in an incredibly short space of time, and it didn't turn out too badly – I was quite pleased with it.'
Any plans to do more? 'I'm doing one of the Ivor Novello shows next year. I don't know which one, but I'm going to restore one of them. Again, I'm hoping that something of Glamorous Night or The Dancing Years survives in its original orchestration. They were all simplified for the road companies, and one wants to do the originals. That was the great thing about The Good Companions – you had Angela Morley and Herbert Spencer doing the orchestrations, and they were geniuses.'
When I ask Wilson what his favourite repertoire is, he responds: 'My favourite thing is the variety – I'd just get bored if I did the same thing all the time. Of course, I love all of the 1950s Hollywood studio orchestra stuff, because the execution is so impressive, as well as the writing and the construction of it all. You have to take your hat off to Alfred Newman and the 20th Century Fox studio orchestra. You're never going to get any better than that – ever.
'At the moment, I'm learning the Szymanowski First Violin Concerto and Rachmaninov's Second Symphony for a concert I'm doing at the Royal College of Music in a couple of months, so I'm learning that. I'm doing Ruddigore. And then I've got a whole bunch of English music things with the Royal Liverpool Phil. So it's having all these different things that keeps me interested.'
Can he really have no ambitions at all? 'I have lots of personal ambitions - I'd love to increase my knowledge and capabilities – but in terms of "career", I just tend to sit and pray that the phone will ring! But I'm very proactive about creating things that I want to do – I'm doing the whole of Singin' in the Rain at the Royal Festival Hall in November with the Philharmonia. I do it simply because I love the music. My success, such as it is, is a result of wanting to recreate great pieces of music that have been lost.
To close, we talk about what he would like to be remembered for: 'I hope I live a bit longer first! But if I had any legacy, it would be for making light music the serious business that it used to be.'
Opera North's Ruddigore plays in Leeds next week, and goes on to Nottingham, Newcastle and Salford.
Credit for BBC Proms image: Chris Christodoulou
John Wilson conducts The Good Companions (November 2009)
John Wilson conducts My Fair Lady (July 2009)
A Little Night Music at the Menier Chocolate Factory (November 2008)
Sail Away at Lost Musicals 2008
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