United Kingdom BBC Prom 30 – The Warner Brothers Story: Mikaela Bennett (soprano), Louise Dearman (soprano), Kate Lindsey (mezzo-soprano), Matt Ford (baritone). Maida Vale Singers. John Wilson Orchestra / John Wilson (conductor). Royal Albert Hall, London, 9.8.2019. (MMB)
Included music by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Harry Warren, Sigmund Romberg, Max Steiner, Dimitri Tiomkin, Meredith Willson, Harold Arlen, Bronisłav Kaper, Frederick Loewe, Jule Styne, Sammy Fain, Alex North and Henry Mancini
John Wilson assembled the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994. In 2009 they made their Proms debut with a concert themed 75 Years of MGM Film Musicals and have been present every single year since then. The group specialises in film musicals and scores of the Golden Era of Hollywood, as well as great Broadway musicals. John Wilson often digs down in the archives and presents remarkable music that has largely been forgotten. I have had the pleasure of attending some of John Wilson’s Proms in the past, notably Frederick Loewe’s My Fair Lady in 2012, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate in 2014 (which I also reviewed) and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story last year. One of the things that most impressed me is the sense of fun that one perceives in John Wilson and the orchestra while they are playing. Last night was no exception. Their shear joy in the music was obvious from the start and rather ‘contagious’, as the audience revelled in the rhythms, silently mouthing the lyrics and dancing in their seats enthusiastically.
This year, John Wilson and his orchestra presented an eclectic programme brought together under the title The Warner Brothers Story. As the name indicates, it relates the story of the Warner Brothers Studio through the music scores to their films and some musicals they adapted for the screen during the so-called Hollywood Golden Period. The evening opened with the overture to The Sea Hawk (1940), composed by the great Korngold (1897-1957) as a full symphonic score that can be heard throughout most of the film. Korngold was already a celebrated composer when he signed up with the Hollywood studio. Perhaps this fact is what made his contract different from that of other film composers of the time – as stated in the programme notes: ‘Most composers wrote literally hundreds of film scores but, remarkably, Korngold’s contract meant he confined himself to around sixteen.’ The overture to The Sea Hawk is very evocative of the action, adventure and heroism that the character of the sea captain (played by Errol Flynn) depicts and lives throughout the movie. An excellent opening outstandingly delivered by John Wilson and his orchestra. It was followed almost without a pause by the famous song ‘We’re in the Money’ from Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), composed by Harry Warren (1893-1981) and finely sung by Louise Dearman and the Maida Vale Singers. The rapturous rhythm of this number just grabbed everyone and got the audience singing silently along, barely able to remain seated and almost joining in the palpable enthusiasm and joy emanating from the singers, the orchestra and John Wilson himself. At the end of it, he had the public at his feet and could do no wrong.
At a more sedated pace then came the title number of The Desert Song (1953), written by Sigmund Romberg (1887-1951), beautifully sung by soprano Mikaela Bennett and baritone Matt Ford. Bennett has a rather lovely timbre, far-reaching, easy high notes and a captivating pleasant tone. Her voice harmonised well with the warm, round sound of Ford’s baritone, producing an enchanting, moving duet. We then had two suites for the orchestra to shine – The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), composed by Max Steiner (1888-1971) and The Old Man and the Sea (1958) by Dimitri Tiomkin (1894-1979) – both extremely well played. Then followed ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’ from The Music Man (1957) by Meredith Willson (1902-1984) and the title song from Blues in the Night (1941) by Harold Arlen (1905-1986) – both lovingly sung by Matt Ford with the Maida Vale Singers joining in on ‘Seventy-Six Trombones’. Then came an elegant, glamorous piece – a waltz, the main title from Auntie Mame (1958) by Bronisłav Kaper (1902-1983) – scintillatingly and affectionately performed by the orchestra and John Wilson. Leading up to the interval we had a tribute to Judy Garland with two songs from A Star Is Born (1954) by Harold Arlen, warmly sung by Louise Dearman and Matt Ford who were joined by bass Patrick Smyth and the Maida Vale Singers. To close Part I of the concert Matt Ford and the Maida Vale Singers delivered a terrific, with gusto performance of the witty ‘Get Me to the Church On Time’ from Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1964).
The second half opened with the overture from Gipsy (1962) by Jule Styne (1905-1994), vibrantly and energetically performed by the orchestra and John Wilson. This was followed by another orchestral suite, this time from Now, Voyager (1942). The score for this brilliant film, featuring a breath-taking performance by Bette Davis as the protagonist Charlotte Vale, was composed by Max Steiner specifically for Davis. The programme notes told us that this is John Wilson’s absolute favourite; so much so that he transcribed the score to create his own suite of music from the film. In his own words: ‘I think it’s the most effective, enriching score ever written for a movie. It is inspired from beginning to end.’ This passion for Steiner’s music to this film effectively showed during the performance. The orchestra seemed to raise the bar, completely enthralled in the music along with their conductor, expressing the various emotions with great authenticity, especially the passionate passages when the protagonist Vale meets a wonderful but married man and they fall in love, and the moving, touching moment in the final scene when they recognise their love has no future and they must part. After this emotional moment, we had the tribute to Doris Day (who died this year aged 97) with ‘The Deadwood Stage’ from Calamity Jane (1953), composed by Sammy Fain (1902-1989), with a gutsy, exciting and suitably boisterous performance from Louise Dearman with the Maida Vale Singers. This was followed by the romantic ‘It’s Magic’ from Romance on the High Seas (1947) by Jule Styne, which marked Doris Day’s debut in musicals. Then there was an outstanding account of the sultry, sensual, torrid main title music to A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), composed by Alex North (1910-1991), followed by two more romantic, serene pieces – ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ from Camelot (1969), another of Loewe’s compositions, plus the only song in the programme by Henry Mancini (1924-1994) ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ (1962) – both charmingly delivered by Matt Ford. The concert then suitably came to its listed ending with another magnificent piece by Erich Wolfgang Korngold – Tomorrow, Op.33 from a largely forgotten film The Constant Nymph (1943) that tells the story of a failed composer in love with two women. This is a lavish, almost extravagant, brief piece that Korngold wrote for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and chorus. And who better to sing it than the extraordinary Kate Lindsey? She has an exquisitely beautiful, rich, dark mezzo tone and her voice just effortlessly soared above the orchestra, which is no mean feat in this piece, as Korngold ostensibly throws everything he can into it from the string and brass sections to percussion and even a mighty organ in the finale. For me this was the climax of the concert, with the orchestra and John Wilson relishing each note and Lindsey in dazzling voice, singing it with great elegance, grace and style. The stormy, resounding ovation that followed said how much the audience loved not only Lindsey’s outstanding delivery but also the superb performance of the orchestra and John Wilson. He and his musicians proved again that, at least in this type of repertoire, they are exceptional and second to none. Kindly enough they offered us two encores: the gorgeous ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’ from My Fair Lady, beautifully sung by Mikaela Bennett, and a suite from music by the great John Williams for the Harry Potter films.
The rapport between Wilson and his musicians is palpable and genuine. He takes them wherever he wants and they gladly follow. Their performances at the Proms throughout the past ten years show how this conductor and his orchestra move from strength to strength, having the power to surprise each time and give a fresh treatment to scores that have been overplayed or largely forgotten. I genuinely enjoyed their performance. It was joyous, happy and uplifting. Facts of great importance in our current times, sadly dominated by uncertainty, Brexit, climate change and crime. For a two and a half hours John Wilson and his orchestra allowed us to escape and travel into a world of great beauty. What more can one want?