John Wilson on how he became a conductor and Elgar’s First Symphony

The Philharmonia onstage during a performance conducted by John Wilson

John Wilson joins the Philharmonia for an evening of music by two great British composers.

Ahead of our concert on Thursday 10 February, we spoke to him about how he started to conduct and his relationship to the First Symphony by Elgar.

What do you most enjoy about working with the Philharmonia?

It’s an orchestra I’ve been conducting for a long time. You build up a relationship, a rapport with the players, and we have various shorthand which makes things quicker and easier.

Of course, I was in college with half of these people so we’ve known each other for a long time! It’s always enjoyable because they want to work, they enjoy rehearsing, and rehearsing in detail.

So it’s always a great pleasure and privilege.

Have you always known that you wanted to conduct?

It was Barbirolli who said that conductors “are born and not made”. I know what he means by that but I’m not sure I completely agree, because I think you can learn to conduct – it’s very important that you do.

I rather “fell” into it because I was playing the piano for a local Gilbert and Sullivan society or something (I can’t remember what it was) and the conductor didn’t show up – people were always not showing up to things when you were doing amateur stuff! And they said, “Oh, you have to conduct” and of course I hadn’t a clue, but I realised instantly that this was something I was meant to do.

I was terrible. But I was serious about it, and I went to the Royal College of Music, and spent four years studying so I could try to be well-prepared and well-trained for the purpose.

Elgar himself said that his First Symphony spoke of “a wide experience of life… and a massive hope in the future.” How does this music speak to you?

I think in the First Symphony, Elgar reached levels of greatness we hadn’t experienced in English music since Purcell. The slow movement is as inspired as anything written by anyone, ever.

And it was a work that everyone had been waiting for – the level of expectation was intense and Elgar delivered in spades and had an enormous success on his hands. I think there were nearly 100 performances in the first year alone – an extraordinary achievement.

How do you approach the wide spectrum of moods in Walton’s Violin Concerto (from contemplative to aggressive, to melancholy)? Do you enjoy this music’s unpredictability?

Walton (like Elgar!) is one of the most meticulous of composers – he leaves nothing to chance.

The challenge is to do everything he puts on the page – do that, and get the style right, and you’re winning.

The Philharmonia performs Elgar’s Symphony No. 1, alongside William Walton’s expressive Violin Concerto on Thursday 10 February 2022 at 7.30pm at the Royal Festival Hall.