John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London: the orchestra’s history and how the conductor re-established it

Few conductors can segue from Hollywood to Holst, MGM musicals to Massenet with the ease of John Wilson. Jessica Duchen meets him as he reforms an iconic super-orchestra and embarks on a new series of recording

john Wilson and the Sinfonia of London

When John Wilson’s recording of Korngold’s Symphony in F sharp thundered out of its CD like a musical typhoon, I knew I’d found my personal record of the year. Few other conductors ‘get’ the sweep and bite of Korngold’s style to such a fine degree and the playing was simply awe-inspiring.

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Meeting the British conductor after a recording session with the same orchestra – his newly convened Sinfonia of London (SoL) – it strikes me that his affinity with this highly controlled yet extraordinarily intense music is possibly no coincidence: Wilson is rather that way himself.  ‘All the music we’re playing is greater than any performance of it can be, so the goals are always out of reach and we’re just striving,’ he tells me. ‘We felt that in particular in the Korngold Symphony: it was so demanding, and we’re just reaching as high as we can.’

John Wilson might be best known to the public thanks to his sell-out BBC Proms and tours bringing the golden age of MGM Hollywood musicals back to vivid life. Yet this is only one aspect of his rich and varied musical life, and rumours have abounded that he was about to launch a super-orchestra. Sure enough, on their way out of St Augustine’s, Kilburn, the church where they have been recording the demanding, gigantic tone-poems of Repsighi, I encounter, among others, a splendid pianist, one of the UK’s top flautists and several violinists I know as orchestral leaders and soloists. No wonder the ensemble sounds so good.

‘It certainly feels very special,’ he says. ‘This is a consolidation of long-standing musical friendships. We’ve mostly known each other a long time, in some cases 30 years, although there are some new players. I have friendships with the section principals and they’ve had a say in who else sits with them, so to a large extent the sound came ready-made. The music we’re recording is terrifyingly difficult – but look at the list of players! We have leaders of major orchestras sitting at the back. Our violas this week are all section principals.’

The choice of ‘Sinfonia of London’ (SoL) stemmed from his love of a recording of English music for strings that the original SoL made with John Barbirolli in 1963. ‘It was the first record I bought and it’s still my desert-island disc,’ he says. ‘When I was studying at the Royal College of Music, I spoke to a couple of players who were on that record – they told me how special it was.’

When was the Sinfonia of London (SoL) first formed?

That first SoL was formed in 1955 by the flautist Gordon Walker. ‘It was felt that an orchestra was needed to mop up all of that film recording work with [conductor] Muir Mathieson, back in the day when everything from a movie to a cornflakes advert used a 50-piece orchestra,’ says Wilson. ‘He formed this magnificent group of all the finest players of the time and they did a lot of work for a decade. Then it more or less vanished until 1982, when Howard Blake and Peter Willison bought the name from the Walker family.’ That move enabled Blake to have a named orchestra for the first recording of The Snowman. For a couple of decades thereafter it functioned as a session orchestra, not least for a goodly number of Hollywood movies.

Why did John Wilson become involved with the SoL?

Although Wilson already had various long-term recording projects with other orchestras lined up for Chandos, another approach was required for a deluge of further ideas. The SoL, he says, is very much a partnership with the record company. ‘We realised we needed a group that we could get together quickly to do one-off projects which were either gaps in the Chandos catalogue or pieces I had ready to go that I wanted to record. The best way to do this was by assembling a freelance group.’

A stickler for accurate editions that represent composers’ final thoughts on their music, Wilson has in effect been tackling the final frontier of historically informed performance practice: late Romanticism and the light music of the early-to-mid-20th century. Now, thanks to his recordings of Korngold, French music and Respighi with the SoL, this music is being scrubbed up, newly vivid and magnificent.

Their latest disc is a seductive mix of French music, combining familiar repertoire such as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnol and Massenet’s Meditation from Thaïs with relatively rare excursions into Ibert’s Escales, Saint-Saëns’s Le rouet d’Omphale and Chabrier’s España – once great concert chestnuts, but too often relegated to the back shelves these days. ‘They’re all pieces that I want to do and that the musicians relish playing ,’ says Wilson. ‘There are references to my past, pieces I’ve known from old records by conductors like Herbert von Karajan and Charles Munch, of which I want to bring new recordings.’ The Debussy and Massenet, which feature important solos, were irresistible given the SoL’s personnel: ‘Our leader is the violinist Andrew Haveron and our first flute is Adam Walker, so it would seem a shame not to use them.’

When did John Wilson first become interested in music?

Wilson can trace his enthusiasm for ‘the byways of music’ back to his childhood in Gateshead. He grew up with brass bands, and loved Gilbert and Sullivan, amateur music-making, operettas and shows. ‘My love of all that has never left me – because it’s wonderful! It’s funny, but someone once said to me “You shouldn’t do light music because you’ll never be taken seriously as a conductor”. I’d say: to hell with that! I won’t give up doing music I love.’

His parents were not professional musicians, but he credits his mother with helping to form his tastes. ‘She has a very good innate appreciation of music. She grew up on old movies which all had great scores and she’d say “Listen to this…” And she’s still my toughest critic.’

Wilson describes himself as largely self-taught, playing music from the age of five, beginning with the piano. He credits his school music teacher for giving him a good grounding, and he soon started drum lessons. ‘But I was always going to libraries, getting scores out and writing arrangements for the local pantomimes and little orchestras of 12 players.’

When did John Wilson start conducting?

John Wilson took his first steps into conducting – including West Side Story with full orchestra and chorus – while a music A Level student at Newcastle College. ‘It was when I got to the Royal College of Music (RCM) that I really had my first proper training.’

Although he entered the RCM as a percussionist, he kept learning on the job, in all manner of capacities. He was always doing gigs, playing the piano ‘here, there and everywhere’. While, as Wilson describes it, he ‘picked up influences along the way and always learned a lot from my colleagues’, a special influence has stemmed from certain US orchestral recordings of the mid-20th century. ‘I have an abiding admiration for those great American orchestras, like the Cleveland Orchestra under George Szell, and conductors like Fritz Reiner, Eugene Ormandy, Charles Munch and Leopold Stokowski. I’ve worn the grooves out on them in my record collection and they still remain to me some of the definitive performances of those vivid orchestral showpieces.’ In his recordings with the SoL, he says, ‘We’re trying to emulate some of that sound.’

He is keen to tackle more Korngold and, with Andrew Haveron, has already recorded the Violin Concerto. ‘I have an affinity with his voice, with his language and with what I think that music needs to bring it off the page. I think it needs a certain kind of touch. You can’t pour chocolate sauce all over Korngold! The music is so finely detailed. The Symphony took him five years to write and you can see the level of detail in the orchestration and construction of it. There are instructions all the time. ’

He identifies similarly with Massenet, whose opera Cendrillon he conducted at Glyndebourne last summer, plus the other French composers on the new disc. ‘I’ve been an arranger and orchestrator and in that capacity you learn everything you know from the French composers,’ he explains. ‘I stole it all from Ravel and Debussy. Debussy is the most remarkable composer – again, the challenge is to do everything he asks for, making sure it has warmth and precision in equal measure.’

John Wilson and musicals

Such has been the acclaim for Wilson’s performances of classic musicals at the BBC Proms – in the case of missing MGM scores, he largely transcribed and reconstructed them himself – that a good tranche of the public has come to associate him chiefly with this sphere. The reality, though, is that he has been performing ‘serious’, if sometimes ‘off-piste’, repertoire for 30 years.

‘Nothing has changed,’ he reflects. ‘I made my debut as a professional conductor in 1994-95, and while I’ve always had a penchant for light music in all its forms – and I will never stop doing light music, whether it be Eric Coates, Johann Strauss or Cole Porter – it’s only ever been my dessert, taking up about ten per cent of my time. But I suppose it’s attracted a lot
more publicity.’

His work on musicals, he says, sprang primarily from his love of song and singing in all its forms. ‘Actually my knowledge of musicals is pretty thin and stops in 1950-something,’ he insists. ‘I have a fairly deep knowledge of a very limited period! But I’ve always loved singers like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland; the songs of that time are right at the heart of the music that I love. It wasn’t an interest in musicals that led me to perform those songs. It was a deep interest in song and wanting to perform them in their original and urtext versions that led me to do those concerts.’

As for film music, he says he has only ever conducted two separate programmes of music from the movies, including The Warner Brothers Story at the BBC Proms in 2019. ‘But those totalled about 16 pieces by people like Franz Waxman and Max Steiner, as opposed to 700-odd concerts of everything else.’

What’s next for John Wilson?

Wilson’s schedule certainly seems packed, although he says he tries not to take too much on. ‘I like to keep a bit of time aside to write, make my own editions, visit orchestras with whom I have existing relationships, and I like to do one opera a year, if possible,’ he says. The year ahead is bringing Britten’s The Turn of the Screw at Wilton’s Music Hall. In 2021 he makes his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, revisiting Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which he conducted at English National Opera last winter to great acclaim (its ensemble won an Olivier Award). Among numerous guest-conducting engagements he is performing the Korngold Symphony in Germany with the Bavarian Radio Orchestra and the Deutsche Sinfonie-Orchester Berlin, and continues his ongoing association with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, among others.

The SoL, meanwhile, exists purely to record for Chandos several times a year. At least for now. ‘That’s the only plan,’ he says, ‘and it seems to be working. I take advantage of the fact that in London there are so many brilliant players who can sight-read like the wind. In terms of forging a sound, it’s the same people pretty much every time, and we’re planning far ahead – so it’s promising.’ Will the ensemble have a concert life outside the recording studio? ‘Honestly, I haven’t thought about it… Let’s see how it progresses.’

In the end, says Wilson, ‘I’ve always wanted to try and add something to the professional life of the city I live in and I’ve been bringing musicians together now for more than three decades, getting them together to play stuff I want to do. I’ve always wanted to be a useful musician.’ 

We scored John Wilson and the Sinfonia of London’s recording of French orchestral works the full five stars

Read our reviews of the latest John Wilson recordings

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Read our reviews of the latest Sinfonia of London recordings