Book review: Conrad Wilson - A Life With Music, by Philip Sawyer

Conrad Wilson
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Conrad Wilson, staff music critic of The Scotsman from 1964 to 1991, died last November at the age of 85. One of his greatest attributes was an extraordinarily accurate memory for facts; he was able to retrieve the most obscure information at the drop of a hat, then articulate it with the same passionate lyricism he might expect from a virtuoso opera singer he was reviewing. His writing was stylish, honest and informative.

He was a walking encyclopaedia of late 20th century Scottish musical life, from the very first Edinburgh Festival in 1947 (reviewing “imaginary” Festival performances for his school magazine as a 15-year-old pupil at Daniel Stewart’s), through the 1960s heyday of Sir Alexander Gibson and the founding of Scottish Opera, to such crises as the threat facing the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in 1980.

Wilson chronicled swathes of that history in books he wrote on Scottish Opera, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Sir Alexander Gibson, and even on the once highly ambitious Perth Festival, and in his many influential columns for The Scotsman and, later, the Herald. His wider knowledge is preserved in numerous composer studies. However, the one thing missing was an autobiography. He was a fascinating man, with unswervingly direct thoughts, views and memories.

Late in life he began a series of blog posts on his website, on everything from his beloved opera to that other great passion, food and wine. Among them were tales of life at The Scotsman, in which some editors fare better than others. But the blog was short-lived, illness bringing these instructive observations to a premature end.

Thanks to Edinburgh organist Philip Sawyer, however, the story doesn’t end there. Sawyer, a neighbour, stepped in at the point when Wilson was finding it hard to write things down and began recording the regular conversations they had together, and these have now been transcribed into this modest publication.

At a mere 37 pages long, A Life With Music reads like a collection of impromptu snapshots but that is perhaps its strength. Dip into any page and there’s a peppering of pithy anecdotes, like the time Sam Bor, erstwhile leader of the RSNO and of Jewish extraction, “objected violently” to playing Wagner under Gibson, or when Leonard Bernstein brought his own chorus to the Edinburgh Festival without informing the resident Edinburgh Festival Chorus.

There’s a scattergun informality to the conversations that fills them with affectionate authenticity, even if this leads to startling omissions. While Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival is discussed at length, for instance, what of the similarly modelled St Magnus Festival, a great favourite of Wilson’s which he attended religiously until Peter Maxwell Davies took a back seat as director which, he once told me, “took the steam out of it”?

A few points of exploration by Sawyer stop short of becoming really interesting, such as why former RSNO chief executive Christopher Bishop was so enraged by Wilson’s 1993 history of the orchestra that it mysteriously disappeared from circulation. I’d like to have asked Wilson that myself.

Conrad Wilson - A Life With Music, by Philip Sawyer, The Hardie Press, £9.95