John Wilson © Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson
© Sim Canetty-Clarke
John Wilson is well known for championing British and American music. Praised as “folksy in the spirituals, achingly romantic in the love songs, violent in the storms and fights”, he's currently conducting a successful run of Porgy and Bess at English National Opera. Ahead of his concert with the Philharmonia Orchestra, the British conductor took time to answer some questions about the jazz-inspired programme, including Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F played by Louis Schwizgebebel.

Bachtrack: In November, you conduct a transatlantic programme with music by Richard Rodney Bennett, George Gershwin and William Walton. What connects the three works?

JW: Friendship and mutual admiration!

Richard Rodney Bennett is perhaps most familiar to audiences for his terrific film scores such as Murder on the Orient Express. How good is his concert music? What is Celebration celebrating?

Richard’s concert music is certainly his best music – his most important music – and it’s hugely rewarding to listen to. He was airily dismissive of his film and television scores and considered them mere “journalism”. Whilst I wouldn’t go that far, I’d definitely agree that they’re dwarfed by his concert music. Celebration was written for his great friend, the horn player and conductor Barry Tuckwell.

Apart from Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, Gershwin’s music isn’t performed that often in concert in the UK. What are the qualities of his Piano Concerto in F and why should more orchestras programme it?

There’s not that much to perform – Gershwin died just as he was hitting his stride as an orchestral composer. But the things he left us are real treasures. Read what Schoenberg had to say about Gershwin; he puts it much more eloquently than I ever could. The Concerto in F is a marvellously inventive, inspired and unique work which has never left the repertoire.

You’re nearing the end of conducting a run of Porgy and Bess at English National Opera. How far does his style and orchestration coincide with concert works like the concerto?

Gershwin knew how to handle instruments and had a very good ear for colour and sonority – he clearly relished writing for the orchestra. Both works incorporate the newer, jazz-influenced harmonies and timbres of the 1920s and 30s.

William Walton admired Gershwin’s music. How far was he influenced by it in his own writing?

Gershwin made jazz-tinged orchestral music respectable – in this regard he was hugely influential.

Walton’s First Symphony: a candidate for most unfairly neglected British symphony? Seriously, why do orchestras play it so rarely?

It does get played – Ed Gardner’s recent recording for Chandos is particularly wonderful – but it’s murderously difficult (the scherzo!) and takes a lot of rehearsal time. Perhaps that puts some people off?   

You regularly conduct the Philharmonia. In your opinion, what are the distinctive qualities about the Philharmonia’s sound?

Elegance and refinement!

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Interview sponsored by the Philharmonia Orchestra