REVIEW: John Wilson Orchestra – Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 6th December 2011

I’ve blogged about John Wilson and his wonderful orchestra before and he is a real musical hero of mine so I couldn’t pass up the  chance to see them live here in Glasgow. With my ticket for row C in hand I thought I had a great seat in row 3 but it turned out that it was even more prime than I thought – it was front row with the most fascinating view of an amazing conductor at work. If I’m being completely honest at every orchestra I’ve ever seen before I’ve never really seen or understood the influence the conductor has on his orchestra – but this was a revelation!! Every gesture, nod, smile or signal was reflected in the playing of this mightily talented orchestra. The fact that, to a man and woman, they played with gusto and a genuine smile on their face from beginning to end, showed the passion and love they have for their orchestra, conductor and this wonderful music.

Hooray for Hollywood follows on from the phenomenally successful appearances at the last two BBC Prom seasons and a festive season TV special. It was a whirlwind chronology of the golden age of movie musicals from the 1930s to the end of the studio musicals in the 1960s.

Act One comprised;

Warner Brothers and the birth of the movie musical;

42nd Street (1933),

Fred and Ginger at RKO;

Top Hat (1935), A Fine Romance (1936), The Way You Look Tonight (1936), They All Laughed (1937), Shall We Dance (1937),

Jeanette MacDonald & Nelson Eddy;

The Road To Paradise/Will You Remember (1937),

Hollywood Goes To War;

Strike Up The Band (1943), Can’t Help Singing (1944), You Stepped Out of a Dream (1940),

You’ll Never Know (1944), Hallelujah! (1955).

Act Two;

Judy’s Comeback;

A Star Is Born/Gotta Have Me Go With You/The Man That Got Away (1954)

The Fabulous Fifties;

Secret Love (1953), Serenade from The Student Prince (1954),

From Stage To Screen;

Gypsy Overture (1964), One Hand One Heart (1961),\

End of the Golden Age;

Jolly Holiday (1964), Pure Imagination (1971), Put on Your Sunday Clothes (1969).

I’ll let John Wilson explain the creation of his Orchestra. “During my childhood in the 1970s and 1980s the BBC would regularly screen the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film musicals on a Saturday afternoon. I was instantly attracted to the sound of the MGM Studio Orchestra and, even then, knew that one day I must conduct an orchestra like that! As my musical experience broadened, I was able to analyse what made that special sound. That the Hollywood studio orchestras had vast string sections is a popular myth – the epic soundtrack for Gone with the Wind was recorded with only eight first violins.) It was this sound that I had in my mind when, in 1994, I formed the John Wilson Orchestra for a concert at the Bloomsbury Theatre. In 2000 our debut performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall paid tribute to the great American composers and arrangers of the past century: Nelson Riddle, Billy May, Johnny Mandel, Paul Weston and others. This led to an invitation to play next door at the Royal Festival Hall and – as part of a concert devoted to the screen composers of Hollywood’s Golden Age – I included a handful of well known songs from the MGM musical films.”

I knew that MGM had been taken over by Turner Classic Movies which had, in turn, been acquired by Warner Bros. I’d read that Warner Bros. presided over meticulously preserved archives and that every note of music for their films survived intact. So I wrote informing them of my forthcoming concert, asking if I might have access to some of the MGM scores. I received a reply by return informing me that, while all of the available music materials for Warner films were preserved in the archives of the University of Southern California, the full scores and orchestral parts for all of the MGM productions were destroyed in 1969 – for no reason other than that they took up too much space and a new car park was needed. Every note of music for every MGM film was gone – used as landfill for a Californian golf course.

Well, not quite. For copyright reasons, MGM was obliged to hang on to some sort of musical documentation – a record of who composed what, so that royalties could be apportioned correctly. So it was with great excitement that I travelled to Hollywood to spend a week inspecting what the USC archives call ‘The MGM Conductor Books’. For every production – musical or otherwise – a short score, or ‘piano-conductor’ score, would be prepared, from which the music director could conduct. These were condensed versions of the full scores and contained most of the information necessary for recording purposes and for fitting the music to the picture. Full scores seem to have been considered too unwieldy: too many page turns that could be picked up by the microphones.

The MGM conductor books exist in varying degrees of completeness; for example, The Wizard of Oz is sketched mainly on two staves with scant indication of harmony (and virtually no instrumentation), whereas Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is laid out over six staves like a miniature full score. Easter Parade and Gigi are all but lost – only a third of each score survives; High Society is 95 per cent complete and has the most lucid sketches. In general, the piano-conductor scores for the later musicals seem to contain more information than their earlier counterparts; a state of affairs brought about by Johnny Green, who was appointed Head of Music Department in 1950 and who insisted on the highest standards of music copying and preparation.

(The conductor books are all beautifully copied by a handful of top-class copyists who must have been on permanent contract at MGM for at least 20 years.) While these documents have provided the basis for my reconstructions, most of the real work is done by listening over and over again to the soundtracks. (I once spent an entire Sunday reconstructing four seconds of music from the cyclone scene in The Wizard of Oz.) There are many things the conductor books don’t give you, inner parts buried deep in the orchestra, also, only rarely did the vocal or choral parts make it into the conductor books.

Reconstructing these scores is a chore, but a joyous one. The songs are all in the top class, written by the greatest tunesmiths of the day. The arrangements are, in my opinion, the finest ever made in the field of musical comedy. The performances on the original soundtracks are just about the best you’ll ever hear. The unbeatable playing of the musicians in the MGM Studio Orchestra is a constant inspiration, not only to me, but also to the musicians of my own orchestra.”

I urge anyone who loves music to go and see an orchestra live. It’s been a while since I have myself and to actually be in the room when a magnificent orchestra is playing is a real privilege. The feeling of the sound resonating through your whole body is an amazing experience. This is an orchestra of supreme quality and both the scoring and the playing are exceptional.

Special mention must go to the vocalists;

Kim Crisswell (above) is the veteran of two of John Wilson’s previous BBC Proms and she belts out these standards in classic Golden Age of Hollywood style.

Annalene Beechey was scheduled to appear but was suffering from a throat infection, she was ably replaced by Sarah Fox a veteran of a previous John Wilson Prom.

American opera singer Noah Stewart (below) garnered some of the biggest cheers of the night with his fine tenor voice

And Matthew Ford the experienced, and in demand, big band vocalist who has worked with, among others; The Syd Lawrence Orchestra, The RTE and BBC Concert Orchestras and the BBC Big Band, sang his programme with charm and aplomb.

Truly brilliant music and musicians. After listening to them, as the Guardian says;

“It’s impossible to feel anything but happiness.”