May 28, 2023
The Conductor John Wilson Doesn’t Like Musical Distinctions
Advertisement Supported by With the Sinfonia of London, Wilson has explored the variety of music — light and serious alike — that defined his musical upbringing. By Hugh Morris Reporting from
With the Sinfonia of London, Wilson has explored the variety of music — light and serious alike — that defined his musical upbringing.
By Hugh Morris
Reporting from Aldeburgh, England, and London.
The conductor John Wilson spends a lot of time doing what he calls “home scholarship”: reconstructing lost scores from MGM musicals, correcting mistakes in orchestral parts and preparing new editions of pieces that can seem illegible.
Then, he “fixes” his orchestra, the Sinfonia of London, a project-based ensemble that Wilson revived in 2018, which will appear at the BBC Proms on Sunday. Sometimes, he offers the players work via text message. “I’ve always had a say in who’s in the orchestra,” he said, “because it has to be the right kind of sound.”
Wilson, who was born in Gateshead, England, in 1972, has always opted for this front-loaded way of working, in which the conductor actively engages in the types of logistics that others might find menial.
“You’d be amazed at the difference good quality orchestral parts make to performance,” he said. “They can make it or break it. You can hit the ground running without having to decipher things.”
All this preparation, he said, is to resuscitate the Sinfonia’s sound of old, “a sound in my head which never left me.” Wilson has a sentimental streak when it comes to his formative influences, and the origin story behind his rejuvenation of the Sinfonia, which disbanded in 2002, is romantic.
When he was 11 and realized that he could buy classical records in his local, pop-oriented HMV, he picked out a copy of the Sinfonia of London’s “English Music for Strings,” conducted by John Barbirolli. That recording was from the ensemble’s earliest era, when it was a freelance recording orchestra made up of London’s premier chamber players and section principals, from 1955 to 1969.
Then, during college, Wilson assisted the composer Howard Blake, who had brought back the orchestra and led it from 1982 to 2002. Wilson’s long-held obsession with the idea of reviving an orchestra, and a desire to record Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp, helped drive the orchestra’s relaunch in 2018. In the five years since, his edition of the orchestra has recorded 26 albums.
Live performances from the ensemble are rarer, but no less anticipated than its award-winning recordings. In two sold-out nights of meaty, early-20th-century orchestral works at the Aldeburgh Festival in June, the Sinfonia produced two dazzlingly colorful performances, underpinned by a ravishing, at times eccentrically exuberant string sound. Yet Wilson’s gestures were economical to the point of near detachment from the ecstatic sounds around him, unleashing a fuller vocabulary of movements only a handful of times.
It’s a different story in rehearsals. There’s an affability between Wilson and the players, many of whom he’s had relationships with for two decades. (“I feel very much as if I’m one of them,” he said in an interview later.) But that didn’t stop him tersely admonishing them for not giving “sheer naked concentration.”
“The whole point of this overture is to be violently on the beat,” Wilson said during a rehearsal of William Walton’s exceedingly rhythmic “Scapino.”
While working with the orchestra, “John is demanding from beginning to end,” said John Mills, a leader of the Sinfonia. “Most of us enjoy that; that’s why we come back,” he added. “We want to be in that very demanding, high-achieving environment, where most of us, 90 percent of the time, feel like we’re impostors. You’re surrounded by brilliant players, and then you talk to the other players, and they feel exactly the same.”
The Sinfonia of London, despite the history of its name and the cohesiveness of its sound, is still in essence a session orchestra. Wilson aims “for a different kind of homogeneity,” Mills said. For string players, that means conserving bow to make long, spinning, bulge-free lines, and finding a vibrato that Mills described as “almost invisible”: narrow, fast and drawn from inside the note, rather than added on as an optional extra.
“There’s plenty of sizzling vibrato,” said Charlie Lovell-Jones, another leader of the orchestra, making “a sound you can chew.”
Wilson also encourages individuality within the sound, in part because of the kinds of players he books. “I have an orchestra full of artists,” he said. During one session, Mills and Wilson realized they had nine British orchestral leaders in the section, alongside some top freelancers, and a selection of chamber players.
With the Sinfonia, Wilson prioritizes a particular repertoire. At Aldeburgh, they performed Rachmaninoff, Elgar and Respighi; at the Proms, they perform Lili Boulanger’s “D’un Matin de Printemps,” Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto and Walton’s First Symphony. Their Ravel, Dutilleux and Korngold recordings have won awards, and their next major recording project is a complete version of Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” featuring new parts that took Wilson 18 months to compile.
He’s drawn to orchestral scores driven primarily by color, craft and texture. “I guess I’ve never ever grown tired of the possibilities of what we call the modern orchestra,” he said. “There are so many things you can do with an orchestra to make it sound.”
Exploring the orchestra by color has led Wilson down some unusual avenues. With the BBC Philharmonic, he has recorded a third volume of orchestral works by Eric Coates, a prolific composer of light music. He’s drawn to the slithering sound of Frederick Delius, and to oddities like the “garish but amazing” Stokowski orchestration of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor. Wilson recently conducted two performances of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta “Princess Ida” on period instruments, with “tiny trombones and cornets and gut strings and everything.”
Wilson is a period performance specialist, but the periods he’s interested in aren’t Baroque. The John Wilson Orchestra, which he founded in 1994, and which would later bring him broader recognition through a 10-year run at the Proms, became known for “historically informed” performances of Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Golden Age movie musicals.
During that time in his career, Wilson didn’t exactly feel pigeonholed, but, he said, “so many people’s perceptions of what I actually did were just skewed compared to reality.”
Shifting his energies to the Sinfonia of London — in part, because of a spate of canceled dates for the John Wilson Orchestra during the pandemic — has coincided with more of a focus on the variety of music that shaped his musical upbringing. Wilson was a largely self-taught pianist and percussionist, who had “a general light music education” in northeast England, playing in Gilbert and Sullivan shows, brass bands and operetta, and fixing his own orchestras for performances of musicals like “West Side Story.”
“Music was just music,” he said, “and I was lucky to grow up with movies on in the background and LPs from Sinatra, all performed to an exalted level.”
Wilson grew up with a value system in which musical distinctions between “light” and “serious” were much less pronounced than elsewhere in the country. A few weeks before he moved to London to study at the Royal College of Music, he had an encounter with a soprano from a local choir after he performed a piece by Coates.
“She said, ‘I hope you don’t take all that rubbish down with you when you go to London,’” he recalled. “I was shocked. She said, ‘You’ll be laughed out of the place when you go to the Royal College of Music.’ It had never crossed my mind that people wouldn’t take to that sort of music.”
Wilson has continued to champion light music in all its varieties. “In its own way, it’s a very pure kind of music,” with “a direct emotional appeal.” It’s a sound and feeling that he heard in Barbirolli’s strings, and that he brings to the Sinfonia of London today: strong, immediate and indisputable.