The Conductor John Wilson Doesn’t Like Musical Distinctions

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.

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