Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hammerstein and the MGM, golden era of Hollywood movie musicals have all been celebrated over the years by the wonderful John Wilson Orchestra. The lost scores recreated note by note and bar by bar by the supremely talented Wilson. This year, the spotlight turns on George and Ira Gershwin.
From a vast back-catalogue of hits, Wilson presents a broad spectrum of the composer’s work; some pieces recognised from the first few notes to some lesser-known gems, and a perfect balance of orchestral pieces and vocal numbers.
The hand-picked orchestra as always, are in the finest of form, getting the evening off to the best of starts with the overture from the 1945 biopic Rhapsody in Blue. Featuring West End leading lady Louise Dearman and John Wilson Orchestra veteran and big band star Matt Ford, there’s not a weak link anywhere. The playful chemistry between Dearman and Ford is a delight to watch and the playing and singing a joy to the ear. Vocal highlights include Dearman’s Someone to Watch Over Me and The Man I Love, and Ford’s S’Wonderful (with the most spectacular whistling I’ve ever heard) and They Can’t Take That Away From Me.
It seems like a disservice to mention so little of the evening, but quite simply, this is as close to a perfect evening’s entertainment as you are likely to get. Sheer class.
John Wilson’s DVD celebrating the music of Frank Sinatra is on sale now.
Yes, dear readers it’s that time of year when I profess my undying love for John Wilson and his outstanding orchestra. Following on the heels of this summer’s Kiss Me Kate Prom (which incidentally will be broadcast this Christmas on BBC) and last year’s Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies, Wilson has turned his attention to the great Cole Porter on the 50th anniversary of the musical genius’ death.
Wilson has eschewed an evening of out and out familiar tunes, instead he has interspersed the big hitters like “I Get a Kick Out of You”, “Your the Top” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” with lesser known numbers such as “Love of my Life”, “The Physician” and “Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway” and provides a broad representation of Porter.
The quality of the playing is of the highest order and the sheer joy on the faces of the musicians transmits itself to the capacity audience. The programme is beautifully enhanced by regular singers Matt Ford and Anna Jane Casey who take on the jazzier numbers and newcomers to the John Wilson Orchestra: Scarlett Strallen and Richard Morrison. Strallen and Morrison are particularly stunning in the more demanding numbers and Strallen shines in the rib-tickling “The Physician”.
It remains to be seen what’s next for the John Wilson Orchestra but I personally can’t wait to see what it is.
Nothing heralds the start of the Christmas season more vividly for me than the annual trip to see the John Wilson Orchestra. It’s not the cries of “It’s Christmas” blasting from every supermarket speaker or the switching on of the lights in George Square, but the sound of the orchestra tuning up and those spine-tingling first notes ringing out around the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall.
This year’s concert That’s Entertainment is a return to the 2009 Prom which took Wilson from respected conductor to worldwide sensation. Eschewing the big names (Seth MacFarlane, Curtis Steigers, Julian Ovenden and Sir Thomas Allen, to name a few) that have peppered previous concerts, he sticks with stalwarts Matthew Ford and Anna-Jane Casey, a pair of sublimely talented singers. Ford, with his magnificently evocative voice brings the era of the Hollywood crooner masterfully back to life and Casey, a gifted actress as well as singer, with the ability and stunning vocal skills to transport you right back to the golden days of the MGM musical.
This perfectly judged and perfectly polished programme opens with the magnificent MGM Jubilee Overture and the skill and talent of the performers and Wilson’s fastidious attention to every detail of this music, shines through from the opening note.
The concert cracks on at a blistering pace, played with exuberance and verve by the breathtakingly talented musicians, from familiar classics such as: “The Lady is a Tramp”, “You Made Me Love You” and “A Couple of Swells” to lesser known gems: “Thanks a Lot But No Thanks” from It’s Always Fair Weather and the little heard score from Silk Stockings, each piece is beautifully executed and designed to delight the audience, an audience I might add who remained entranced throughout each song and moved to rousing applause at each’s conclusion. Most heartening to see was the age range of the sell-out audience, from little children right through to those able to remember this music in its glorious hey-day, through the talent and skill of Wilson and his orchestra these glorious musical classics live on and boy is this audience thankful that it has.
Of the 200 or so shows that I review each year for work, this is one of the few that I look forward to from the moment it’s announced and unlike much of what I see it never disappoints, a pure pleasure and an unalloyed triumph every time. Spirited, soaring, sparkling, sure-footed, sumptuous, vivid, vibrant, witty, well-judged, thrilling and triumphant. Sheer perfection!
It was a triumphant return last night to the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall for John Wilson and his spectacular orchestra. At the risk of boring everyone senseless again (I’ve waxed lyrical and at length about John Wilson on many occasions) I’ll keep it short.
Wilson’s careful and clever mix of well known and neglected, but no less beautiful tunes serves to remind us that some of the finest songs of the 20th Century were written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein.
The energy and virtuosity of the players and the enthusiasm and charisma of John Wilson manage to convey to each and every audience member the sheer joy and exuberance of this music. It is a privilege to be in the same room as these musicians and to hear this music. Vocalists Sir Thomas Allen, Julian Ovenden, Annalene Beechey and Kim Crisswell testify to the quality and sheer class of this outfit, all four made the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end when they sang. The sell-out house were on their feet at the end and everyone on stage deserved no less acclaim. All I ask is that they hurry back to Glasgow as soon as they can.
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).
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;