John Wilson and the BBC Symphony Orchestra trip the Light Fantastic

Sullivan, German, Coates, Haydn Wood, Farnon, Warner, Ellis, Armstrong Gibbs, Angela Morley, Ernest Tomlinson : John Wilson, conductor, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London, 25.6.2011 (CG)
Arthur Sullivan: Overture di Ballo (1870)
Edward German: Prelude to Romeo and Juliet (1895)
Eric Coates: The Three Elizabeths Suite (1940)
Eric Coates: London Calling (1942)
Haydn Wood: London Cameos Suite (1942)
Robert Farnon: Jumping Bean (1948)
Ken Warner: Scrub Brothers, Scrub! (1945)
Vivien Ellis: Coronation Scot (1948)
Armstrong Gibbs: Dusk ((1934)
Angela Morley: A Canadian in Mayfair (1950)
Ernest Tomlinson: Waltz for a Princess (1965)
Eric Coates: Knightsbridge, from London Suite (1933)

I am just about old enough to remember 1951 and the Festival of Britain. The Royal Festival Hall was brand new. The area now covered by the grey concrete housing the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the Purcell Room, the National Theatre, National Film Theatre and the Hayward Gallery was peppered with exhibitions celebrating the greatness of British achievements. My father worked on the turnstiles, and waved me through, without paying, many times. Tut-tut! And if there was music seeping from loudspeakers, the chances are it would have been British light music, although I don’t remember it. Light music was very popular; the vogue for it had begun began roughly in 1920 and it continued until the 50’s and 60’s, when a new generation demanded something more gritty and down to earth. Of course light music has never died completely; you might still hear it played on bandstands at the seaside, and it lingers on in one or two radio programmes, such as The Archers and Desert Island Discs. A Gilbert and Sullivan operetta is essentially light music.

Light music was obviously not suddenly invented in the 20’s – most composers had sometimes provided music that was entertaining rather than deep and thought provoking; just think of Rossini, Handel or Mozart in lighter vein. Then, later, there were the Strausses in Vienna, Offenbach, Franz Lehar, and Robert Stolz, and a hundred others in the Viennese and German camps – and for that matter the Nazis loved their bucolic operettas. But when we think of light music, and British light music in particular, we are thinking of a certain way of doing things that satisfied the appetites of war and depression-weary Britons who needed relief from the anguish of the day. They needed good tunes, shiny orchestrations, and satisfying structures to their music, which never threatened, always consoled or enlivened. It is that genre of music which is largely behind the “Light Fantastic” series of events covering a whole weekend on the South Bank, one highlight of which was the concert given by John Wilson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Music lovers can be sniffy about light music. The very term is quite likely to engender groans – “light” means “unimportant” or “superficial.” I’ve had these thoughts myself, and I wondered how I’d react to a whole evening of it. Um-cha-cha, um-cha-cha, um-cha-cha, um-cha-cha……….or um-cha, um-cha, um-cha, um-cha……..and yes, keeping the interest alive could be a problem. Fortunately, there was just about enough contrast in the programme, and the tunes were mostly good enough to make all of it interesting and most of it highly enjoyable. If this is “pop” music of a kind, then it is certainly superior pop music – the composers who wrote this stuff were mostly brilliantly professional musicians who knew how to construct their pieces soundly and knew how how to make an orchestra sound great. And with the BBC Symphony Orchestra obviously loving every moment of it, the various pieces did in fact sound – GREAT!

First we had Arthur Sullivan’s Overture di Ballo, which, composed in 1870, reminded us of Rossini in patches and Mendelssohn in others. Edward German’s Prelude to Romeo and Juliet was more dramatic and rather serious, with hints of something Elgarian, while certainly not being as passionate or gripping as Tchaikovsky or Berlioz. Next we were in the company of perhaps the most notable light music composer of all, Eric Coates; the Three Elizabeths Suite celebrates Elizabeth the first, then Elizabeth Glamis (later to become the Queen Mother) and lastly Princess Elizabeth, our present Queen. The first represents the Tudor age complete with some impressive fanfares, the second is beautifully lyrical and depicts the sun rising through the mist in the central Highlands, and the last is a march for the (then) young princess, and looks forward to happy times.

The second half was even more lively, with an array of shorter pieces of considerable diversity. London Calling is cheerful, with a ripping good tune. Haydn Wood’s London Cameos Suite is more ambitious, with quirky orchestrations, and Robert Farnon’s Jumping Bean should put a smile on your face with intervals supposedly untypical of the light music genre. Scrub Brothers Scrub had the strings scrubbing away furiously, and then Vivian Ellis’s Coronation Scot had us all pining for the age of steam or Francis Durbidge’s Paul Temple dramas for radio. What a terrific tune! Dusk, by the prolific but largely forgotten composer, Armstrong Gibbs, is a beguiling slow waltz with multi-divisi strings. Angela Morley, who before a sex change was well known as Wally Stott, becoming well known for his/her theme for Hancock’s Half Hour, composed A Canadian in Mayfair as a tribute to Robert Farnon; it is a pastiche of his Portrait of a Flirt with its alternating pizzicato and legato string phrases. Ernest Tomlinson deserves a special place in any light music hall of fame, not only as a result of his noteworthy and prodigious output as a composer, but because of his crucial role in the conservation and archiving of a vast quantity of light music; he is still President of the Light Music society. Tonight he was represented by his Waltz for a Princess, and it was not hard to visualise a princess spinning around to this frivolous but charming music. With Knightsbridge, we were back in the world of radio signature tunes – at least for those of us old enough to remember “In Town Tonight.” This is one of Eric Coates’s best – thoroughly irresistible, with two excellent tunes, and masterly handling of the orchestra.

And then an encore – and it was “non Stop” by John Malcolm. As John Wilson pointed out in his introduction, we wouldn’t know the composer’s name or the title of the piece, but we certainly recognised the tune as the one which introduced the ITN news for years and years.

Petroc Trelawny introduced the programme smoothly, with no more depth than the music demanded, and there was a brief chat with John Wilson, who has found a niche for himself as a tireless enthusiast for light music, as well as music from the movies and musicals. He is a veritable whirlwind on the podium, and gets fantastically energetic and vibrant performances from the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He’s very good with this music, no doubt about that at all, and for all its “lightness,” one shouldn’t imagine this music is necessarily easy to perform effectively; remember, these composers were at the top of their game and often demanded virtuosity from their players.

Whether the current efforts to reignite interest in this area, which can feel claustrophobic at times, will bear long-term fruit, remains to be seen. I suspect most music lovers will continue to want main courses in preference to selections of starters and desserts, for that’s what the music adds up to really. All jolly fine, good fun, expertly done, and even beautifully pretty sometimes. But life’s not really like that all the time, is it?

Christopher Gunning