The sound of one hand clapping

It's fitting, but frustrating, that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

In an age of greatest hits, best evers and one-and-onlys, classical music has become a lone voice of moderation in a clamour of superlatives. As an industry we’re modest to a fault, ruthlessly chopping down our tall poppies with chastening reviews and damnings with faint praise, subjecting our artists to the kind of demanding scrutiny that only comes from love and just a little bit of obsession. So while the Grammy Awards are a technicolour extravaganza (only outdone by the MTV Awards) and even the edgy Mercury Prize sprawls over front pages and column inches, it’s fitting that the annual Gramophone Awards were announced quietly last night in a Hawksmoor church in North London.

Fitting, but also frustrating. Taking place within weeks of the Classic BRIT Awards – the commercial face of classical music – the Gramophone Awards risk being obliterated by their louder rival. Voted for by critics rather than by the public (as is the case for the BBC Music Magazine Awards) or industry members (the Grammys, Classic BRITs), the Gramophone Awards are easy target for those already inclined to see classical music as a whispered conversation among the ivory-towered elite.

But while democracy in music has given us One Direction, meritocracy has given us Domingo, Monserrat Caballe, Menuhin and Glenn Gould. Classical music doesn’t need to shout, but that’s no reason why it shouldn’t.

A major change this year saw Gramophone’s individual category winners announced in advance, saving only the public-voted Artist of the Year award and the Record of the Year for the ceremony itself. This gave us several weeks to pore over the eleven winners – Jonas Kaufmann at his peak in Wagner, a vividly quirky Trittico from Antonio Pappano and the Royal Opera, the baroque glories of the Gabrieli Consort’s Venetian Coronation, bold, generous performances all – before they were obscured by the big winner. It’s a shift to a savvier, more commercially-minded approach and not before time. Only through exposure, through champions, highlights and yes, even short-cuts, can classical music reach audiences in the current digital babel.

When the Gramophone Awards were launched in the 1970s the recording industry was a simpler and smaller affair. Each week saw a fraction of the new releases we have now, with radio the only real alternative to buying records. Now, with the amount of digital content available online doubling year-on-year, and a bewildering amount of amateur as well as professional music available to us all digitally, is the very notion of expert-driven awards outmoded?

Quite the contrary. Over-exposed as we are, ears dulled by the constant demands of music in shops, restaurants, on the radio and on the internet, this is the time when we are most in need of curated listening, as Gramophone editor James Jolly explains. “It’s wonderful to live in this age of spectacular excess but every so often you just want someone who knows their stuff to choose and play you the best music.” Far from excluding new listeners, awards like these invite them to cut straight to the good stuff, to defer the learning curve until after they’ve seen what lies at the top of it.

Setting the curve in 2013 with a winning Record of the Year was Moldovan violinistPatricia Kopatchinskaja performing concertos by Bartók, Eötvös and Ligeti. It’s a wonderful result, in large part for being so unexpected. Smart money might have been on vocal winner Jonas Kaufmann, nominee Joyce DiDonato or even Gramophone’s most-awarded artist John Eliot Gardiner. A victory for Kopatchinskaja and three 20th and 21st-century concertos is a victory for grit over polish, for challenge over comfort. This young artist is not one to mince her musical words. Sacrificing beauty for emotional engagement she risks much, and to reward this daring with a win at such an early stage in her career sends a vital message to an industry of retouchers and studio edits that truth is more valuable than the loveliest of illusions.

Gramophone’s 2013 winners – Kopatchinskaja, Gardiner, trumpeter Alison Balsom, guitarist Julian Bream among them – are serious musicians. Their job is to perform to the best of their ability, to answer eloquently in interviews and choose daringly in their repertoire. Ours is to shout about the results. Classical music itself may still escape the vulgarity of hyperbole and excess that dogs the pop music industy, but if we are to have a hope of keeping it that way then we may have to risk a little vulgarity ourselves in promoting it. I’m holding out for a Gramophone Awards ceremony with elephants, Rhinemaidens and a chorus of thousands – after all, it’s what Verdi, Wagner and Mahler would have wanted.

Julian Bream, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Gramophones. Image: Getty
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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