John Wilson Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall, London – review

Back in 2009, when John Wilson set the BBC Proms alight with a concert of newly reconstructed scores from the golden age of MGM musicals, he could, he says, have given his audience more. The trouble was that performing all the material he had researched would have lasted until 3 o’clock in the morning. There had to be a sequel.

This UK tour of 12 cities brought a second selection of the original orchestrations back into the public arena. It is good to know that Wilson’s success in rediscovering the American musical is being recognised increasingly far afield, including in the US, where he recently took his orchestra to Los Angeles – “like coals to Newcastle”, he quipped (Wilson comes from next-door Gateshead, so he should know).

Wilson’s concerts are the American musical as you have never heard it before. On film, there is not the thrill of a live orchestra, and previous concert performances did not go back to the original orchestrations, which are not just authentic for their period, but often brilliant in their own right. Add in the quality of players that he manages to attract to the John Wilson Orchestra (“is there any UK orchestra which has its leader tonight?”, quipped one admirer, scanning the faces among the violins), and these classic musicals fairly explode back to life.

The MGM Jubilee Overture, a medley put together for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 30th anniversary, set the tone – glossy sound, razor-sharp ensemble. The best items in a John Wilson evening are often the purely orchestral numbers, which included here the Waltz at Maxim’s from Gigi and a six-minute excerpt from Silk Stockings (picture Cyd Charisse trying on her stockings as the music plays). The first London performance of Gershwin’s An American in Paris in its original film scoring, lit up by Michael Lovatt’s solo trumpet, made a fitting finale.

The two singers on this tour are the live-wire Anna-Jane Casey, marvellously brooding in “Love” from Ziegfeld Follies, and Matthew Ford, tuning his mellow baritone to that old Bing Crosby favourite “I Love You, Samantha”. Put the two of them together with the John Wilson Orchestra at its most dazzling in Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” and they could surely see the sparks fly over the Royal Festival Hall all the way from Hollywood.

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