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August 28, 2013 5:49 pm
This was an evening of Hollywood in one dimension only, but how vivid that one was. Images from classic films kept suggesting themselves – the shower scene from Psycho , Bergman and Bogart in their smoke-filled bar in Casablanca, the chariot race of Ben-Hur – but this time the visuals remained strictly in the mind.
Over the past few years the annual visit of John Wilson and his orchestra has become one of the hottest tickets of the BBC Proms. Previous programmes have taken the form of vocal highlights from stage and screen interspersed with the occasional orchestral number, such as the dazzling “75 Years of MGM Musicals” in 2009, but this year the balance was reversed.
The huge John Wilson Orchestra, filling the Royal Albert Hall stage, took the spotlight mostly for itself. There are familiar faces from many of the UK’s leading orchestras in its ranks, and only an orchestra with a high proportion of experienced players could gel to perform a piece such as the main title to The Big Country so splendidly, with the wide-screen, big-hearted sound it demands.
All the music dated from the 20 years spanning the late 1930s to the late 50s. This is clearly Wilson’s favourite period, and his expertise in searching out the original orchestrations is what makes his Proms more than just popular music fillers. Max Steiner’s score for Casablanca is a minor marvel of its period, exuding atmosphere; there had to be some Erich Wolfgang Korngold, here the suite from The Adventures of Robin Hood, single-handedly establishing the glossy Hollywood sound; and Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking strings from Psycho reminded us that film music can be both modern and fearsomely individual.
The vocal numbers worked less well this time – too many tunes being worked into the song medley – despite the skills of vocalists Jane Monheit and Matthew Ford (how could Doris Day’s hit number, “Que sera, sera”, be reduced to a single chorus?). But the orchestral medley of Tom and Jerry cartoon soundtracks – a frantic cat-and-mouse orchestral showpiece with a pair of percussionists chasing around with taxi horns, anvils and cowbells, smashing crockery and splashing water – made a thrilling ride. Wow!
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