Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Hooray for Hollywood: John Wilson does it again..

I’m literally still buzzing... What a night! John Wilson has become one of the BBC Proms’ most popular participants, recreating the magic of music from a bygone age before our ears. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend each of the young conductor’s triumphant turns on the podium at the Albert Hall – beginning with ‘The British Film Music Prom’ in 2007. The ‘Hooray for Hollywood Prom’ was unsurprisingly a sell-out, much like last year’s glorious ‘Rodgers & Hammerstein Prom’ and the one that started the buzz, ‘The MGM Film Musicals Prom’ in 2009...

The conductor/arranger’s hand-picked band – The John Wilson Orchestra - features some of Europe’s top front bench orchestral musicians and together they breathed life into a selection of music that remains truly Golden.
One thing that always strikes me about these shows is the love that so obviously goes into them; John is passionate about this music and in bringing in the talent he does, he makes sure it’s delivered in note perfect form. The only other way to experience this particular music in this way would be to physically go back in time and sit in the Hollywood scoring stages of the 30s, 40s, 50s and 60s.
Quite an era to take in, but one which saw the rise and demise of the golden age of the motion picture musical, from 42nd Street to Hello Dolly. With MGM Musicals previously covered in their own right and the work of Rodgers & Hammerstein duly noted, this Prom allowed a wider reach in terms of the variety of the material and took in music from studios like RKO, Warner Bros., Twentieth Century Fox and of course MGM. The all-encompassing ‘Overture’ took in music from many of the film titles referenced throughout the following programme and it was enough to fill any heart with pure joy as the orchestra bounced their way through the selection, assembled by Wilson. What a fine achievement it was, and that was just the first piece!
Split into a further nine sections, the programme took us through history, beginning in the early glory days of Warner Bros. and the aforementioned 42nd Street, released in 1933 – about the same time as the birth of film music itself – and moving through the thirties song and dance classics of Fred & Ginger and the heady forties, when the movie musical was an escapist shot in the arm and much needed boost during the war years. From there we witnessed ‘Fred’s Swansong’ and ‘Judy’s Comeback’ with the likes of music from Ziegfeld Follies and A Star is Born, before moving into later classics like Gypsy, West Side Story and Guys and Dolls. The final curtain for the genres glittering golden age came in the form of films like Disney’s Mary Poppins, Fox’s Doctor Dolittle and the final bow that was Hello Dolly.
These musical numbers of course needed voice and the John Wilson Orchestra were not left without. The Maida Vale Singers lent fine vocal support, adding some emotional and uplifting weight to the likes of ‘Strike Up The Band’ and the searingly emotive ‘Serenade’ from The Student Prince. The lead vocal came from tenor Charles Castronovo, whose passionate performance was quite literally heart stopping. He was just one of six vocal soloists to join in the fun, and the likes of soprano Sarah Fox, tenor Matthew Ford and Annalene Beechey were in fine voice throughout. It was, however the efforts of Caroline O’Connor and Clare Teal that shone through. O’Connor is perhaps most recognised as Nini Legs in the Air in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! but she is also a much-lauded star of the stage in her native Australia and has performed regularly in London’s West End and on Broadway. Perfectly cast in the Judy Garland role for the set from A Star is Born, O’Connor was simply outstanding – not surprising given she starred as Garland in the world premiere of the hit show End of the Rainbow. She truly is a little firecracker of a performer and her various turns – notably ‘Strike Up The Band’, ‘Gotta Have Me Go With You’ and ‘Triplets’ – were exacted with a confidence, prowess and zeal lacking in some of the others. That latter song, from MGM’s The Band Wagon (1953) saw her joined by Ford and Fox, each of them bedecked in romper suits, hats and clutching teddybears... A comic highlight for sure.
Clare Teal brought with her the delightfully infectious personality and crystal clear jazz vocals that have made her a star. She absolutely nailed the likes of ‘You’ll Never Know’ (from Fox’s Four Jills in a Jeep) and ‘Secret Love’ (from Warner Bros. Calamity Jane). Constantly smiling and quite noticeably just having a wonderful time, Teal’s natural warmth and good humour was a perfect fit for this show.
Rounding off the endlessly entertaining concert was ‘Put On Your Sunday Clothes’ from Fox’s Hello Dolly. With all the vocalists, choir and orchestra united it served to raise not just smiles across the auditorium, but hairs on the back of our necks too. The encore of ‘There’s No Business Like Show Buisness’ saw a final belting turn from O’Connor, who took on the Ethel Merman persona with ease (again a character she has played before, this time on film in De Lovely). Though we stamped our feet and clapped our hands until they were raw, Wilson and Co. were understandably tired and after a third walk to the front of the stage they disappeared from view. Not from our memory though, as this show will live on for a long time; such was the impact and generous spirit of those involved. Congratulations to John Wilson once again for making such magic, and with the colourful, heart-warming rendition of ‘Jolly Holiday’ from Mary Poppins in mind, perhaps next year he might consider taking us back to the Golden Age of Disney? Pretty please?

With thanks to BBC Proms, Rosanna Chianta, John Wilson and The Royal Albert Hall. You can watch The Hooray for Hollywood Prom on BBC 2 at 21:15GMT on Saturday 3 September. Tune in, you won’t regret it... If you can’t wait, then why not LISTEN to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast on BBC iPlayerclick here

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

A Night at the Movies... At The Proms: The Film Music Prom - Fri 12 Aug 2011

Never presume a concert is going to start at 7.30pm... Lesson learned. I didn’t actually miss any of Friday’s Film Music Prom at the Royal Albert Hall, but I did unwittingly sit in my seat just five minutes before conductor Keith Lockhart struck up the band.

The band in question was of course the always-wonderful and dexterous BBC Concert Orchestra, who launched full pelt into Bernard Herrmann’s ‘Prelude’ from The Man Who Knew Too Much. It was a fine start to an all too brief tribute to the composer, who of course would have been 100 this year, and with the film’s finale location in mind – not to mention Herrmann’s cameo on that very stage – it was all rather delicious. The exuberant ‘Overture’ from Citizen Kane went down well, as it always does, before Lockhart and Co. delivered Herrmann’s engrossing ‘Narrative’ of Psycho. Lovely to have a Herrmann presence at the Proms, however fleeting. The Moby Dick Cantata next year perhaps?

Chloe Hanslip was warmly received for her first half performance of Morricone’s oh-so-captivating theme from Cinema Paradiso. What an achievement that score is... So beautiful; and in the hands of the talented Hanslip it really did soar around that vast space and into our souls.
William Walton’s Henry V is highly revered, and rightly so. The lengthy ‘Suite’ presented at the Prom, rounding off the first half was perhaps a bridge too far for some. While the music rang out, jewel-like, intense and buoyant, it was interspersed with a live recital of parts from Shakespeare’s play by actor Rory Kinnear. This is no slight on Mr Kinnear’s talent, indeed it was a great performance of a selection of speeches; but for the uninitiated and – in my case – the unprepared, it was just a bit long. Minds wandered to the interval drink, the upcoming James Bond suite, or whether the Celeste player would nail the parts in Harry Potter... Still, a noble job and ably done.

Part two saw the ensemble bring out the big guns, opening with a selection of pieces by John Williams. Not a massive surprise for a seasoned film music concertgoer, but wonderful to hear the likes of Star Wars, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and Schindler’s List at the Proms. The fanfares of the former rang out and tingled spines, while Potter’s dizzying spectacle, replete with perfect Celeste I might add, was suitably magic. Chloe Hanslip returned to take on Schindler’s List and proved yet again what a talent she is. The piece never fails to haunt and uplift in equal measure.

Jonny Greenwood is a talented chap isn’t he? I was so impressed by his score for There Will Be Blood and I couldn’t wait to hear his ‘Suite’ from Norwegian Woods at the Prom. I wasn’t disappointed. The orchestra was put through its paces to deliver some hair-raising avant garde devices, led by a simple repeated motif in the strings which finds itself bleeding out into the rest of the orchestra. Riveting is probably the best word to describe this music. I always imagine that for a ‘rock star’ composer, being given an orchestra to play with is just like having the most exciting toy in the world; hearing what Greenwood came up with cemented that thought. Very effective and a lot of fun.

Sir Richard Rodney Bennett celebrates his 75th birthday this year. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years ago and he really is a proper gentleman. While his birthday has been noted by a whole Prom this season, the Film Music Prom wouldn’t have been right without a tip of the hat to him and his music. Murder on the Orient Express is probably one of his highest profile film scores and the selection of cues performed at the concert were just fantastic. It made me wonder why I haven’t sought out more of RRB’s stuff. Murder is just such a thrill; a bit camp, lavish and colourful with a period hue. It reminded me of a story about Bernard Herrmann, who at the time said RRB had got it all wrong “What was he thinking?!” he said “This is supposed to be a train of death...”. Classic. It’s true to say the venerable British composer didn’t go down a dark route for the killer thriller, but his tongue in cheek, romping and melodic music is some of his best and the concert performance was a standout of the evening, truly.

Finishing things off, and in tribute to the late John Barry, was a lovingly performed Out of Africa and a barnstorming suite of music from a variety of James Bond films. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Goldfinger and ‘The James Bond Theme’ were arranged together and played with bags of panache and enthusiasm. The twirling cellos in David Arnold’s ‘You Know My Name’ were a great touch and said much for the overall concert. Keith Lockhart is a real showman and he brought a great energy, wit and enthusiasm to the evening.

Up next? The Hooray for Hollywood Prom on 29 August! John Wilson and his fine orchestra whisk us back to Hollywood's Golden Age again, hot on the heels of the MGM Film Musicals Prom in 2009 and last year's glorious Rodgers & Hammerstein Prom. I can't wait! Full report coming soon...

With thanks to BBC Proms and Royal Albert Hall