Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Richard Weight, Sheryl Sandberg and Rory Carroll.

Mod: A Very British Style by Richard Weight

In Mod: A Very British Style, Richard Weight tells the story of Britain’s first and most influential youth cult, charting its origins in the Soho jazz scene in the 1950s. Writing in the Guardian, John Harris says that reading Mod conjured Proustian flashbacks for him and that as an adolescent growing up in the 1970s, “I was consumed by my first taste of what Mod had left behind, and it changed me forever: the initial rites included a poleaxed listen to the Who's My Generation.” Written by an academic, the book attempts to establish that Mod was not only the first distinctively British youth culture but a popular form of modernism – “an avant garde reaction to mainstream aesthetics, morality and politics.” However, Harris explains that uncertainty clouds Mod’s origins and its legacy: "Perhaps … we are all modernists now". Harris provides a critical analysis of the style: “Weight opts for a scattershot narrative, brimming with second-hand quotations, a bit like an undergraduate dissertation.” The main criticism is that the although the Mod ideal boils down to an emphasis on sharpness and an attention to detail, the book in contrast is rambling and so “it ends up missing its target, by miles.”

In contrast, Walter Ellis writes in the Spectator that Richard Weight has crafted an “elegant and thoughtful compendium” showing that there was more to the youthful revolt than Beatlemania and the Who. Ellis describes Mod as a social movement wrapped up in a fashion statement, and that Weight’s thesis can be summarised as showing that the Mods were a “populist version of the Enlightenment”. He concludes by saying “what matters is that he has done his job well” and is sceptical of what future cultural historians will make of the youth of today.  

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg

Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, gave a motivational Ted talk in 2010 about women in the boardroom, and Zoe Williams writes in the Guardian that her book Lean In is an “elongation” of this speech. Williams explains that this “is not a book about how women can become more equal: this is a book about how women can become more like Sheryl Sandberg”. It is a “goal-driven, ideology-free approach has some fascinating insights into the world of business itself”, and Sandberg’s thought processes leading her to Google and interview process for Facebook are “magnetic.” Sandberg’s approach is “emollient and inoffensive” and brings in relevant experiences of her own, “describing the "damned if you do, doomed if you don't" bind that women find themselves in if they boast about their achievements. Williams points out that despite winning a Henry Ford scholarship for her attainments in her first year at business school, jointly with six men, Sandberg didn't consider telling anyone, and that it is disappointing that a woman in the 1980s didn’t have the “spine to admit she was clever”.

On the other hand, Anne-Marie Slaughter in the New York Times writes that Sandberg is a “feminist champion” and that Lean In is “full of many such gems, slogans that ambitious women would do well to pin up on their wall”. For example, the phrase “It’s a jungle gym, not a ladder” describes the many different paths careers can take, sideways and even downward on their way up. At the same time, she concedes that the advice to young women to be more ambitious “can sound like a finger-wagging admonishment when taken out of context”. Slaughter explains that “Sandberg is not just tough, however. She also comes across as compassionate, funny, honest and likable.” Sandberg’s point in a nutshell is that “notwithstanding the many gender biases that still operate all over the workplace, excuses and justifications won’t get women anywhere. Instead, believe in yourself, give it your all.”

Comandante: Inside Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela by Rory Carroll

The Telegraph’s David Blair humourously writes “To survive in the court of King Chávez, you had to 'mould' your face into a mask and 'arrange features into appropriate expressions when on camera,'" writes [rory] Carroll. 'This,' he adds, 'was tricky when the comandante did something foolish or bizarre.’”

Rory Carroll’s latest book, Comandante has received much praise for the nuanced profile it offers of the “Bolivarian Revolutionary”, Hugo Chavez. Carroll, who has experience in reporting from regions, such as Iraq, with hostile political conditions, spent his next assignment in Venezuela. He reported from 2006-12 from a country where corruption, bureaucracy and crime rates were quotidian fare. Blair praises Carroll’s book as “beautifully written and acutely perceptive book … on the nature of power, in all its corruption and absurdity.” He later adds: “Now that the comandante has passed on, Carroll will have to update his account. When he does, this book will deserve to be the definitive work on Chávez in the English language.” The Financial Times’s Julia Sweig also praises Comandante as “a compellingly written, keenly reported portrait of Venezuela…He writes with tremendous pathos in explaining Chavez’s appeal to the millions of poor Venezuelans who, for decades felt, and largely were, invisible to the ruling elite.” She highlights how the book explains the Venezuelan public’s changing opinion of Chavez; having seen him as the face of change, they came to realise that he differed little from those who came before him.

The Independent’s Oliver Balch adds that the book “excels in showing what happens when a self believing ideologue grasps the reins of government and determines not to let go. It’s military politics, without the guns: outflanking opponents, consolidating power, barking orders, reprimanding ministers.” Balch observes how Carroll’s observations grow increasingly critical and animated towards the end of the book, yet he states this “criticism is built on an earnest attempt to understand a fascinating politician.”

Balch, Blair and Sweig all applaud Carroll’s favourable position to provide an insightful portrait of Chavez; which as Balch rightly observes, reveals “a more intimate image of Chavez than his own propaganda allows”.

A policeman escorts a teenager in 1964 after violence between Mods and Rockers in Margate, Getty Images, photographer Ronald Dumont, Hulton Archive
GETTY
Show Hide image

Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser