Nigel Jarrett casts a critical eye over a performance of music from Classic MGM films by The John Wilson Orchestra and The Maida Vale Singers.
As a so-called ‘brand’, the John Wilson Orchestra continues its success in bringing the Hollywood film studio sound to the concert hall. It’s an orchestra made up of a conventional dance band inside an orchestra broadly symphonic and its repertoire of rehabilitated film scores in their original packaging, ‘reconstructed’ by Wilson, Paul Campbell and, in one number at this concert, Simon Nathan – as authentic as it comes. The sound is an odd mixture of the nostalgic and the brashly exuberant in keeping with the tone of many of its numbers, and the playing, as much from the band-within-a-band as from the surrounding European-originated setting, of the highest quality.
That said, even admirers of the orchestra and its ethos must have been knocked back a smidgen by the £10 being asked for the concert programme, albeit informative as well as glossy. But this brand has to be paid for – Wilson and his players tour with a different show each year, this time with a mixed chorus added – so that accounted for the merchandise desk, relatively modest in this case but usually associated with A-list entertainers. In its category the orchestra heads that roll-call.
Eight years ago, Wilson put together a programme of film/stage musical items for an appearance of the orchestra at the BBC Proms, ending up with six hours of material that had to be cut. The current tour has swept up those surpluses and made an equally impressive programme. Like all excerpts from stage shows light or operatic, there’s an unavoidable spilling of blood as they are wrenched from their context.
In many cases, such as ‘Anything You Can Do’ from Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, speak, as it were, for themselves. Music and words by Berlin – what a character. In this case the verbal jostling was sung by Matt Ford and Louise Dearman, two of the Wilson-picked soloists essential for this kind of show and having the unenviable responsibility of doing what others have famously done before them. This encounter couldn’t have been bettered by their celluloidal forebears.
Dearman was peerless in ‘I Never Felt Better’, from the little-known show Athena by the even lesser-known (to the uninitiated) Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. In this she was joined by Katie Birtill and the Maida Vale Chorus, of which Birtill is a member, and followed it up with ‘You Are My Lucky Star’ from the Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed musical Singin’ In The Rain, perhaps the highest of the high in this genre. Both tunes were set in stone by Debbie Reynolds, the latter involving some spoken text by Dearman which illustrated perfectly the threat to comprehension involved in the ‘bleeding chunk’ approach to presentation.
That Dearman, Ford, Birtill, and the other chorus step-out, Matthew Little, inhabited their roles fully understanding the pre- and post-gobbet drama spoke much for confident assumption. Mr Little popped up alongside Ford and Dearman in ‘Good Morning;, again from Singin’ In The Rain (it was originally written earlier for Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney) and in the film, of course, by Reynolds, Donald O’ Connor and Gene Kelly. He joined Ford in ‘I Guess I’ll Have To Change My Plan’ from the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dietz show The Bandwagon and made famous by Fred Astaire and Jack Buchanan.
By now it’s clear that apart from needing to be reminded in the programme from which musicals these songs were taken, there was also lacking a brief resumé of characters and setting. It might have helped. Wilson’s announcements from the stage were, for this reviewer anyway, a trifle muddled as to titles and there was no time for complicated scene setting. Also at this stage, it was clear how much of historical musical interest went into these scores and their original arrangements by divers hands, Conrad Salinger oftentimes among them.
But others had further dimensions, not least, as Wilson commented, with European antecedents. Lyricist-turned-producer Freed was MGM’s figurehead. Under him, film musicals and MGM became synonymous, though they weren’t the only players on the boulevard. This fascinating orchestral provenance and Freed’s influence upon it was rolled up in the final ‘Broadway Melody Ballet’, a lengthy and elaborate confection of tunes and orchestration styles arranged by Lennie Hayton and Salinger, masterfully re-cast by Wilson, and with Ford and the chorus in attendance.
Wilson with Paul Campbell also re-shaped the ‘Limehouse Blues Ballet’ from the Phil Braham-Doug Furber production Ziegfeld Follies, here presented as another orchestra-only feature but ever associated with Astaire, rather improbably cast as a poor Chinese labourer in the film but surmounting the obstacle with typical swagger. There was much more, including some brassy interpolations throughout by trumpeter Mike Lovatt.
The only caveat to be entered is whether or not in an auditorium where the acoustics always receive plaudits from the elevated really needs microphones and amplification of any kind. The chorus in full cry actually sounded as though it was microphoned, surely unnecessary even though it numbered sixteen and was stationed on the conductor’s left flank. But these are electronic gizmo matters with all their technophobe justifications.
It was a virtually full house, as expected. One was tempted to repeat that they don’t write tunes or lyrics like that any more – a cliché which on this occasion almost became a truism.
St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 30 November 2017
The John Wilson Orchestra
The Maida Vale Singers
Soloists: Louise Dearman, Matthew Ford, Katie Birtill, Matthew Little
Conductor: John Wilson
Nigel Jarrett is a freelance writer and regular contributor to the Wales Arts Review. He is a poet, novelist, and story writer. His latest collection of stories, Who Killed Emil Kreisler?, was published last year. He is a winner of the Rhys Davies prize for short fiction and, in 2016, the inaugural Templar Shorts award. He also writes and reviews for Jazz Journal. Next year sees the publication of his short fiction pamphlet, A Gloucester Trilogy.