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 iPlayer – click here