John Wilson | Interview
Having just been announced as the new principal conductor for the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, John Wilson is going to become a very well known face around Dublin, if he’s not already. With a rich musical history, including performances at the BBC Proms, Wilson is set to offer up some musical delights in the coming years with the RTÉ CO. We met with him to discuss his accomplishments, the proms, and the future for Dublin’s own RTÉ Concert Orchestra.
Wilson is known for his performances of film music, musical scores and theatrical music, but with a background steeped in classical training, having studied in the Royal College of Music for a number of years, where did this interest in film music and musical scores come from? I always tried, when I was a student, to cover as many bases as possible, stylistically. I was never going to be hemmed into doing just one sort of thing, because I hadn’t really had that sort of background before I went to college. Before I went to college, I earned my living playing the piano in pubs and clubs, and then doing amateur theatrical, so doing musical shows. So those two strands always ran alongside each other. And I’d even say that some of the best practical training I’ve ever had was doing those musical shows and playing for ballroom dancing and things like that, because you really had to get it right! All the disciplines were what formed my musical education I think.
And where did this interest in music develop from? For each musician, the journey is different. Some are born with the want to play, others catch the bug somewhere during their lifetime. How did the love of music develop in Wilson? I could play the piano from when I was four or five – I just got a piano and picked up tunes, and developed my piano skills instinctively. And then making music with amateur orchestras, brass bands, choirs, bits and pieces at school and then playing with amateur orchestras when I was in my late teens. And doing those musical shows and pantomimes was all just practical based; doing it badly, rolling your sleeves up and getting stuck in. And probably, it was terrible, but by the time I got to the Royal College of Music when I was in my late teens, I’d already written and arranged the music for four or five pantomimes with twelve piece orchestras. I’d done endless musical shows and theatre pieces so by the time I got to college, I’d a fair bit of practical experience, and I think I learned more doing that than I did in any kind of institution.
So does Wilson, with his background from childhood in the style, connect more to the dramatic music of theatre productions and film to that of opera or classical music? Wilson was pretty adamant that he doesn’t. No. I’ve got no particular preference or enthusiasm. I love everything that I do. They’re just like different rooms in the same house, you know? And I think it’s because I love doing all sorts of things that I don’t get bored. I think if I had to do just one sort of thing, I’d tire very easily of it. And as someone who has become somewhat known for his performances of this very dramatic theatre music that’s energetic, animated and not too serious, has he come across any sense of snobbery from those in the classical world who perhaps don’t take this style of music too seriously? Only idiots. The only people who’ve been snobby about things, say for instance my orchestra in England, would be people who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about. I’ve never met a musician who was snobbish about the stuff that I do. But then again, the stuff that I do is pretty venerable! It’s been around for one hundred years nearly. Like Gershwin, Cole Porter and Korngold – How can you be snobby about those towering geniuses?
Approaching a new score is a big part of a conductor’s preparation for a concert. Learning an entire work to the point where you can lead an entire orchestra in its performance is no mean feat, so how does Wilson prepare? It depends on the work. If it’s what I call legitimate classical music, then I’ve got stages of assimilating a score. Say a Beethoven Piano Concerto – I spend hours playing the thing through the piano, then I mark my scores up. I’m a religious marker up of scores, which is like a road map for me. And that gets me to the stage where I have the music in my head and I can take a rehearsal. And then I’ll do the piece again in another concert, and that’ll get the music into my bones and into my blood. I hope with a piece to get to the stage where the music is so much a part of me that I can just sit back from the score and just try and guide it through the performance, almost at a distance.
One big question remains for Wilson – what has he got planned for his future with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra? We were certainly excited to hear what wonderful musical treats were awaiting us, and Wilson wasn’t going to keep us in suspense. I want to concentrate on a number of areas. One of those is what I call universal music, which is that sort of core body of popular classical music that so often doesn’t get played. You find that orchestras do lots of big scale works like Mahler and Bruckner, and yet there’s a whole area of beloved and cherished popular classical music that doesn’t get played, and I think the concert orchestra is perfect to do that. We’ll be looking at doing complete musicals in concert performances, and concerts like I’ve been doing at the Proms. I’ve put those concerts together, and I can bring them over here now, which is wonderful.
Lots of plans, lots of ideas and lots of experience - John Wilson has become the new captain of the ship that is the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, and it appears to be in the most capable hands. With new connections developing and ideas growing, 2014 is set to be a big year for our own Concert Orchestra, and we certainly look forward to watching the action as Wilson takes the reins of one of Ireland’s most loved orchestral ensembles.