Get ready for a Swingin' Christmas
John Wilson and his Orchestra are currently riding a wave of popular acclaim following their televised MGM Musicals and Rodgers & Hammerstein Proms concerts in 2009 and 2010. BBC Classical Music TV cameras went to London's Air Studios to film a special live concert for the festive season: Swingin' Christmas features three singers who made their mark in those concerts – Anna Jane Casey, Seth MacFarlane and Curtis Stigers. Introduced by Sir Michael Parkinson, John Wilson's concert delves deep into the American songbook, with some contributions also from noted British composers of swing music. Here, John describes the journey …
Swingin' Christmas came about as a result of the enormous audience reaction to our Prom concerts, which happily have been repeated several times on TV. The programme illustrates what we do best and I'm fortunate that as well as having crack musicians who love to play this music, and really know how to perform it, the orchestra contains a clutch of gifted arrangers who have pitched in to the programme. Ninety-five percent of my professional life is taken up with conducting – in all genres – but I've also been arranging and re-creating scores (especially film scores) for about ten years: as many people were shocked to find out when we did the MGM Prom, huge quantities of the original scores had been wantonly destroyed and it was a work of painstaking reconstruction to bring them back to life.
Sometimes you are working from a so-called piano-conductor score, and you orchestrate from that; in extremis, you might be doing dictation solely from listening to a recording. People ask, 'How do you know what to do?' and the answer is that over time you get to know the house style of the film studios concerned, and the techniques used by individual composers gets under your skin. And to this mix you bring your technical knowledge - in my own case I spent 10 years working with Robert Farnon, as a copyist, assistant and proofreader and I learned a lot from that experience.
I got to know and love swing because it was coming out of the radio and TV when I was a kid - my parents listened to it, and so did I – I remember Alan Dell's programmes on Radio 2 so it's always been around me. As Sir Thomas Beecham said, it enters the ear with facility and leaves it with difficulty. Swing music has certainly dipped out of fashion in the last 20-30 years; but as time passes it gets re-evaluated, and we've found that people want to listen to it again.
Conductor John Wilson with Sir Michael Parkinson and the soloists
The swing orchestra is like a symphony orchestra with a dance band in the middle of it. It came out of American jazz in the 1930s and by the middle of the decade it had become a distinctive style – Glenn Miller would be a good reference point that most people know. Swing was the pop music of its day: we're 70 years on from that now, but it seems just as relevant to the generation born – as I was – in the 1970s and after. It's timeless and not just a vehicle for nostalgia: I feel that people nowadays are more broad-minded and inclusive in their listening – they will always recognise excellent, well-written, melodic music with the capacity not just to entertain but to thrill. There's nothing old-fashioned about it and, especially with a new generation re-interpreting it, I feel it's here for good – I hope that Swingin' Christmas will help to get the music out there to new ears, as well as delighting people for whom it was 'their' pop music.
The Swingin' Christmas programme is quite a showcase for the music, although there is so much material that I could have put together about 12 evenings of concerts (how about it, BBC?). But to give you just a flavour, I've included a 'Big Band Symphonic Medley' arranged by Andrew Cottee: it's all the signature tunes of all the most important bands; I haven't missed any important band out – there are 13 in all, and I think each melody gives you the flavour of the original band – the moods are a mixture of swing and sentiment. Then it's just for the instruments and leaders themselves to play it to you – you'll get an Artie Shaw clarinet solo, a Tommy Dorsey trombone solo, and of course you'll get 'Moonlight Serenade' from Glenn Miller – it's very wide-ranging and colourful.