wed 22/11/2017

BBC Proms: Hooray for Hollywood, John Wilson Orchestra, Wilson | reviews, news & interviews

BBC Proms: Hooray for Hollywood, John Wilson Orchestra, Wilson

BBC Proms: Hooray for Hollywood, John Wilson Orchestra, Wilson

Delicious romp through the golden age of the American musical

John Wilson: natty tails, elegant baton technique, fancy footwork and exquisite music-makingChris Christodoulou

Hooray for Hollywood! The title of last night's Prom didn't officially have an exclamation mark. But if any concert deserved a screamer, it was this one. A delirious mutual enthusiasm pinged back and forth from stage to audience all night as the slick John Wilson Orchestra and its eponymous chief (with excellent vocal support) romped through the highways and byways of the golden age of the American musical.

"Shall we give in to despair or dance with never a care?" sings jazzer Clare Teal early on in a number from Fred and Ginger's 1937 movie Shall We Dance? The answer is of course never in doubt in John Wilson's hands. There is something so infectiously stylish about Wilson that even when we are cruising through some formulaic 32-bar big-band swinger it's hard not to get excited. When the music flags (which it infrequently did), there's his fluent baton technique to admire, his natty tails, even his fine podium footwork. Beyond this, there are any number of soloists in the stellar orchestra to carry your attention. The cool, confident and occasionally ballistic playing from the trumpets was where most of mine was focused.

Stupid as it now sounds, initially, I was somewhat fearing the singing. I was afraid of the sort of high-class tribute acting or karaoke into which this kind of grand musical homage to the great show tunes can too often descend, with singers imitating classic voices and characters and trampling over the imperative to be fresh. But (and I should have guessed it would be so) this bunch had too much class to fall into this trap.

They established themselves well in the first-half songs from the 1930s and Forties. We became acquainted with the husky Tony Bennett-like purr of Matthew Ford, the simple, pure tones of simple, pure Annalene Beechey, the mellifluous sound of Sarah Fox and the peppy Caroline O'Connor. But it was only with the arrival of the more familiar and varied bunch of numbers of the second half that the vocalists began to stretch their legs and truly connect with the audience, in the way that the orchestra had done with their classy Wilson-arranged opening medley.

Clare Teal was fabulous. Versatile and brave, she showed great mike-control in the elegiac "Secret Love" from Calamity Jane (1953) and some very convincing scatting in "Clap Yo' Hands" from Funny Face (1957). I found it strange how, amid all the remarkably lithe vocal talent on stage, the biggest cheers were showered upon the opera tenor Charles Castronovo, and his stiff rendition of the "Serenade" from The Student Prince (1954), made famous by Mario Lanza. Give me the sprezzatura gravel of O'Connor over Castronovo's tastefully milky silk any day.

Two numbers made me smile: a brilliantly mean-spirited number from The Band Wagon (1953), in which Fox, Ford and O'Connor are baby siblings, swaddled in jump suits and bonnets, and sing: "How I wish I had a gun/ A little gun - it would be fun/ To shoot the other two". The performance of "Jolly Holiday" from Mary Poppins (1964), which wasn't above including the helter-skelter sequence for the waiter penguins (of whom the fabulously game Maida Vale Singers did a valiant job impersonating), was terrific fun.

Not only do these show tunes come cloudless; they can also dispel bad weather to the four corners of the earth

But the highlight was Caroline O'Connor's edgy delivery of two powerful numbers from A Star is Born (1954). O'Connor's skill was all about an agogic application that hinted at the great Judy Garland (who originally sang the songs) but that never parodied her (O'Connor saved parody for her show-stopping encore).

The emotion in O'Connor's songs stood out. It nudged me towards my one problem with the evening. While I will never deny a place for simple, unalloyed jollity in art, I'm not sure what one should think of an entire art form that can travel with such untroubled ease through the years of Depression, the Second World War, nuclear fallout, the Korean War and the start of Vietnam without picking up a single wrinkle, without finding a single song overshadowed by a single truly black cloud.

It troubled me not for long. Two barnstorming encores (including "Hooray for Hollywood" from the 1937 classic Hollywood Hotel) swept all negativity away. Which is perhaps the point. Not only do these show tunes come cloudless; they also have the power to dispel bad weather to the four corners of the earth. And sometimes that's what we need.

Comments

The 'Charlie Brooker of Classical Music'? More like the Hello! magazine school of music journalism.

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