An Interview with Conductor John Wilson

composer john wilson orchestra interview

As the John Wilson Orchestra swings into Harrogate International Festivals’ flagship Harrogate Music Festival this July, he talks Paul McCartney, perfect pitch and the Proms…

What does one of the world’s most in-demand musicians do to relax? “I do the same as everyone else. Just watch the telly! I’m watching Line of Duty at the moment, I’m absolutely gripped! I’m on series two at the moment so I don’t want any spoilers.”

John Wilson has to be one of the busiest men in music. A charismatic figure on the concert stage, John is best known for his Hollywood-themed concerts at the Proms.

“I’m conducting at the proms three times this year, so preparations for that will be starting soon, I’m doing my debut at the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam, and I’ve got two more records to make. I’m in Scotland now making a record of music by my great friend, the late Richard Rodney Bennett, and then a week after that I’m recording some Aaron Copland for the BBC Philharmonic, so I haven’t got much free time!”

“Biggest inspiration”

“I’m just an ordinary person,” John insists, referring to his love of telly, in his down-to-earth Tyneside accent. But as well as being one of the UK’s most respected and successful conductors, he is in fact one in 10,000.

“Yeah I have perfect pitch. I didn’t know I had it until I was told when I was 11. I thought everybody had it.” How do you know you have it? “Someone tells you that you have pitch memory, so I can sing you a note and tell you what the name of it is; it’s one in 10,000 people who have it.”

Growing up, John picked up music ‘listening to records and watching things on the television’. He browsed his dad’s record collection, and became ‘obsessed’ with the Sergeant Pepper album. John enjoys a close working relationship with Paul McCartney and has orchestrated and conducted several of his compositions. “I never thought I’d grow up to work with Paul McCartney when I was five years old!”

His first record was John Barbirolli conducting the Halle Orchestra, “It must have made a deep impression,” John said, “because he’s still the conductor I admire pretty much above all others.” But it was working with musicians – brass bands, amateur orchestras – in his community that gave him the ‘biggest inspiration’.

John Wilson interview Orchestra

“Orchestrations are opulent”

“I taught myself to play the piano then I learnt percussion at school. I started writing arrangements as they were needed by amateur groups up north. It was something I just picked it up. I started serious studies when I started the Royal College of Music when I was 18. My parents weren’t musicians or anything like that. It was just something that was in me. It was my thing that I had to do. There’s not a day I can remember when I was not obsessed with music from being a toddler. I remember going to the piano and thinking, I know how this works – it seemed logical, just like learning to speak.”

The John Wilson Orchestra has become a firm favourite with Harrogate International Festivals’ audiences. This year, they’ll perform a celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein at Harrogate’s Royal Hall.

“I’m looking forward to coming back to Harrogate, we love playing there, we love playing in the Royal Hall, it’s wonderful Hall, and the audience is great, it’s always packed to the rafters.”

He is renowned for gathering the finest session musicians at work for his orchestra. Something he says he’s developed over 20 years, although they have to book them months and months in advance. The result is a world-leading orchestra that routinely attracts five star rave reviews.

“We have some really top singers to deliver the songs in Harrogate. The film orchestrations are really opulent – a big, big orchestra.”

“I’m getting into opera”

The Rodgers and Hammerstein programme features the film versions of their most famed hits, but it also includes Rodgers and Hart hits – many of which featured in their 2009 debut at the Proms dedicated to the golden era of MGM studios. The debut wowed the nation, and the orchestra has remained one of the hottest tickets of the season.

Harrogate can expect hits from Oklahoma! Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music, but there’s not one song that stands out for John.

“I love them all. I’ve made sure the show is an embarrassment of riches, so every song is a song I love.”

John recently moved into conducting classical composers, including Rachmaninov, which received rave reviews, as the Guardian said: “With Wilson at the helm, this ship will rock.” After 20 years of restoring movie tracks, he feels he’s done all he wanted in that arena.

“I’m getting into opera and getting booked to conduct operas and that’s a new thing for me and I’m loving every minute of it.”

He longs to work with classical violinist, Janine Jansen, but still has ambitions for the jazz world, citing Harry Connick Jr as, ‘A complete musician’ and an artist he’d love to perform with. John says he wears two hats; the light music and musicals paves the way to classical music, but he doesn’t necessarily feel he makes orchestral music more accessible.

composer john wilson orchestra interview harrogate

“Purest of all art forms”

“I just played music that I really love and I’ve taken a great deal of care to present it to the public, and hope they get the message from the music, I guess! Everybody on stage has to be really committed to the cause. I guess that makes it accessible.”

John is a passionate advocate of the arts charity, Harrogate International Festivals, particularly in a time of arts funding cuts and the fact music is no longer on the school curriculum.

“I find it really absurd that music is not on the school curriculum. Apart from the fact it’s one of the most ancient and essential of all disciplines, the purest of all art forms, it’s proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that playing a musical instrument increases your achievements and attainments in other fields. So why it’s thought of as a luxury item, I’ve really, really no idea.”

The 19 year-old BBC Young Musician Finalist, Ben Goldscheider, who also features at Harrogate International Festivals, performing with the European Union Chamber Orchestra, expressed similar frustration. In an interview with the Festivals, Ben said: “If we talk of the arts as something in itself that can be added or taken away at will from the school curriculum, then people see it as an optional subject that maybe only the richer parts of society take part in.”

“What are we without the arts?”

Ben added: “The arts cover every aspect of human emotion, compassion and skill and I can’t think of any other activity that will reap so many benefits for those who undertake it. I really cannot stress enough the importance of the arts for young people and how it is something that will enrich your life in so many ways.”

John nods in agreement. “I couldn’t agree more. Ben is an example of a guy who is way mature before his years because of his education in music. Arts are the beating heart beat of any civilisation. If you take the arts away, you have an economy, you don’t have a civilisation. Arts are the expression of a civilisation. What are we without the arts? Take art away, what’s left?”

John says platforms like Harrogate Festivals are crucial for the ‘local landscape’, bringing people together. “There’s nothing like an orchestra as an example of people working together in total harmony to deliver something of beauty that touches everybody who comes to listen to it.”

The most abiding emotion he hopes audiences in Harrogate will leave with is ‘joy’.


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