John Wilson Music from the Movies

The John Wilson Orchestra: Music from the Movies | Live

Cath Barton was at St David’s Hall in Cardiff to review a well-attended Music from the Movies concert by conductor John Wilson. 

Following in the footsteps of his hero John Williams, John Wilson has been bringing film music to concert audiences since 1994, but came to wider public attention in 2010 when the BBC Proms commissioned him to present a programme of music by Rodgers and Hammerstein. For this he recreated original film scores for a 75-piece orchestra simply (!) by listening to the soundtracks of films such as Oklahoma, The Sound of Music and South Pacific. Having greatly enjoyed this and subsequent Proms appearances by the John Wilson Orchestra, but only on radio and TV, I was keen to see and hear them live when their 2016 tour ‘Music from the Movies’ came to a well-attended St David’s Hall.

As a conductor, John Wilson wastes no time – onto the podium, he lifts his baton and the orchestra is off, with a magnificent clash of cymbals from Alfred Newman’s ’20th Century Fox Fanfare’, followed by ‘Street Scene’ from the same composer’s How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), showcasing the range of sound from the orchestra. This film gave Newman one of his record 45 Oscar nominations until, as John Wilson told us, John Williams “knocked him off his perch” in 2006. The Academy Award – aka Oscar – was a clever thread to pick for this concert, bringing together music well and less-well known, and offering opportunities for the orchestra’s guest vocalists to recreate award-winning songs.

Musical theatre singer Kim Criswell clearly had fun letting rip in combative form in ‘I’m The Greatest Star’ from Funny Girl (1963), the first song which Barbra Streisand sang in a musical. She reprised her role when this was filmed in 1968 and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. It is not just in recent times that these awards have been controversial. Judy Garland, incontrovertibly one of the brightest of movie stars, never won an Oscar. Kim Criswell here poignantly sang ‘Love of My Life’, one of Cole Porter’s songs for Garland in The Pirate (1948).

The John Wilson Orchestra contains within it a big band line-up, and this, teamed up with Matt Ford, widely regarded as the finest big band singer in the UK, gave us some of the silkiest moments of the evening in Johnny Mercer’s ‘Something’s Gotta Give’ from Daddy Long Legs (1955), which won Best Song for that year. It was also a delight to hear him sing Lerner and Loewe’s ‘If Ever I Would Leave You’ from Camelot (1967), which garnered several Academy Awards.

The 1944 film Laura won the Oscar for best black and white cinematography, and David Raksin’s theme music of the same name has become a jazz standard. John Wilson accurately introduced it as haunting, starting as it did with shimmering strings and with added darker notes from trombone and the bell sounds of the celeste.

In his quickfire introductions, John Wilson opened doors to the music of composers across the film world. I had never heard of Polish composer Bronislaw Kaper, for example, and yet he wrote many film scores, notably for the MGM remake of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), his music here represented by ‘Confetti’, written for Lesley Caron to dance to in Forever, Darling (1956), and played in sparkling style by the fine musicians of the John Wilson Orchestra.

The first half concluded with two scenes from what John Wilson referred to as “the greatest film score ever written”, Korngold’s The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), featuring solos for celeste, cello and others, and ending, as the concert opened, with clashing cymbals.

John Wilson conjures such an array of light and colour from his musicians, all of whom seem to share his joy in the music of the movies. Their playing of the overture to My Fair Lady (1964) demonstrated this beautifully. We think, correctly, of the music being written by Frederick Loewe, but it was André Previn who picked up the Oscar for the film’s musical score. For the screen, the music as well as the pictures must be larger and brighter, and that is what John Wilson and his orchestra demonstrate to us so brilliantly.

The second half piled treasure upon treasure – a suite from Max Steiner’s Oscar-nominated score for Gone with the Wind (1939) was followed by ‘Days of Wine & Roses’, with which Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer took the award for best song in 1963, again sung with apparently effortless style by Matt Ford. In a suite from Max Waxman’s “dark, lushly romantic score” for A Place in the Sun (1951) we were treated to a stunning solo on alto sax from Howard McGill.

And then we had the cherry on the cake, oh yes! In preparation for his orchestra’s 2013 Prom, ‘Hollywood Rhapsody’, John Wilson watched 76 Tom and Jerry cartoons and settled on seven, from which he arranged and orchestrated a medley, repeated here. It featured, as he put it “adventures in extreme tonalities” and “sound effects covered by the kitchen sink department”. Two of his percussionists had a whale of a time with a panoply of instruments, including a flexatone, swanee whistles and carhorns, and venturing to the further reaches of new music by smashing plates into a dustbin, screaming and snoring. Wonderful stuff for kids of all ages. And yes, the Tom and Jerry series won seven Oscars.

It was difficult to follow this, but John Wilson managed to do so successfully by switching gear once more to present two more songs from Kim Criswell in the guise of Barbra Streisand, from Yentl (1983), whose Oscar-winning music was written by French composer Michel Legrand.

Encores gave us more Alfred Newman, winner of the Academy Award for Best Score for Call Me Madam (1954), with the two vocalists duetting in Irving Berlin’s ‘You’re Just in Love’, and a final, fitting orchestral tribute to John Williams, who in the early 1970s revived film scoring – and brought 20th Century Fox back from the brink of bankruptcy.


Header photo of John Wilson courtesy of St David’s Hall.

Music from the Movies

St David’s Hall, Cardiff, 23 November 2016

John Wilson, conductor and arranger
Kim Criswell, vocalist
Matt Ford, vocalist


Cath Barton won the New Welsh Writing AmeriCymru Prize for the Novella with The Plankton Collector, which is published by New Welsh Review under their Rarebyte imprint.