Review: Prom 59. John Wilson Orchestra: Hooray for Hollywood

John Wilson Orchestra – Hooray for Hollywood
(Prom 59, Royal Abert Hall. August 29th 2011. Review by Sebastian Scotney)

The John Wilson Orchestra has been in existence for seventeen years. It has done its “annees de galere” and both its reputation and its brand these days are, deservedly, flying high.

It brings something different to Britain’s musical life and to Radio 3’s Proms. One official BBC website calls the orchestra’s MGM musicals Prom from 2009 unequivocally “the highlight of the 2009 BBC Proms season.“(*)

The orchestra’s 2011 Prom had sold out within just four hours of going on sale. The orchestra will be on a ten-date national tour from 28th November, bringing a much-needed feelgood factor to several cities in Great Britain

This year’s programme, assembled by the energetic Tyneside-born conductor who is – still, just – in his late thirties, was entitled “Hooray for Hollywood.” It was billed as a sequel to the 2009 venture, and again focused mainly on film musicals from the golden years of the studio system. Wilson presents either new transcriptions – painstakingly, brilliantly realised by himself and a team of three collaborators – or original scores. There were clever linking threads through the programme around the stars featured in the films – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers and their films from the RKO Studio, passing via Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley to, Deanna Durbin, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews… .

For the listener, the key to the John Wilson Orchestra experience is to revel in the sound of these lushly orchestrated film scores. Without images from the films, the experience is all about the music, and the claim that the orchestra delivers the sound experience “in technicolour” is not misplaced, indeed it sums up the contribution of this handpicked orchestra, which last night consisted of around a hundred players.

The commitment of the players is impressive. String principals such as violist Andriy Vitovych , the Belcea Quartet’s Laura Samuel and leader Andrew Haveron bring a special energy to the string timbre. There are also some fine contributions from the jazz world, Matt Skelton bringing an unequalled crispness, life and precision to the drums, Jeremy Brown‘s generous-toned jazz bass is omnipresent.

After the success, parrticualrly of the 2009 Prom, last night had a mood of inspired risk-taking in the programme, willing the audience to be taken into less familiar repertoire. The first half closer was a case in point. Conrad Salinger’s massive symphonic arrangement ofthe Harry Warren tune This Heart of Mine from Ziegfield Follies of 1946 was worth showcasing, but the claim in David Benedict’s programme note that it is “a textbook case of how to keep building through 13 choruses” probably overstates the case for the piece.

I sensed that the audience only really started to lift the performers and for the whole evening to get going proplerly during the second half. For me, the turning point was Charles Castronovo taking to the High C’s in the Serenade from The Student Prince. Others may – of course – have different reactions, it may feel very different in the TV transmission, but that sense one knows of an audience fully engaged seemed to take a long time to materialize.

Why? I’m not sure. Perhaps, compared to the likes of Kim Criswell and Curtis Stigers from the 2009 show, some of the vocalists this year had a one or two lumens of starriness, or joules of stage energy less than their predecessors. Perhaps the formula of singers doing one number and walking off creates discontinuity. Maybe it would have had a fresher feel if they’d stuck around. That would have prevented Annalene Beechey from making (I think) six changes of costume, but there would also have been gains. Or maybe an audience that books out this kind of show within hours of booking opening consists of careful rather than flamboyant types. Or maybe we’re all just that little bit British and keep our feelings to ourselves.

These are minor quibbles. There were many moments to treasure in the first half: Clare Teal lingering over the long phrases of Harry Warren’s “You’ll never know,” or the orchestra shimmying through the Astaire/Rodgers dance sequences.

And, at its best, such as the second half closing sequence, culminating in encores of “Hooray for Hollywood” and “There’s no business like show business,” the line from the latter song “The audience that lifts you when you’re down” did ring completely true.  The energy from the stage was properly reciprocated from the hall, and this Prom did, eventually, turn into the memorable evening it could or should have been all along. It will be on BBC2 on the evening of Saturday September 3rd.

(*) LINK John Wilson Orchestra Nov-Dec Tour Dates

Categories: miscellaneous

5 replies »

  1. I listened to the Prom last night and felt very much the same, that the first half left me feeling slightly disappointed – not sure why, would have liked a bit more Fred and Ginger, but the second half was stunning and I agree with your comments about the Student Prince – sung stunningly

  2. Lots of good points there, Sebastian. Worth mentioning also that Hollywood’s often criticised when it comes to the legacies of Gershwin, Bernstein et al. Broadway composers created great shows, Hollywood ruined them by making them into movies – so the received wisdom goes. But this fascinating Prom made a strong case for the defence, with Roger Edens’ Main Street, inserted into the movie version of On the Town, being a case in point. Just because it ain’t Bernstein doesn’t stop it from being a lovely number, and I for one hadn’t heard it before. And that’s just one example of why this conductor/scholar is so outstanding in this repertoire. Hooray for John Wilson …

  3. Slightly disappointed. Loved the orchestra-thought the singers were seriously lacking, other than Charles Castronovo who lifted the performance. Overall-disappointed

  4. 2 different impressions: lukewarm on radio; mesmersising on TV – particularly A STAR IS BORN with Caroline O'Connor strutting her stuff with her two close harmony vocalists. Although the TV version edited out numbers from On The Town and The Music Man it did include that great arrangement of There's No Business Like Show Business, lopped off the R3 tx. This was a stunning finale.

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