It was time to spread some sunshine in the autumn gloom. For the past four years the John Wilson Orchestra has been lighting up the BBC Proms with its dazzling evenings of music from Broadway and Hollywood, and now it is following up those summer engagements with a tour around the UK that spreads their warmth more widely.
The classical music world has been slow to embrace musicals. Spurred on by the discovery of a cache of original orchestrations in 1982, the major record companies embarked on a series of starry new recordings, often with opera singers in the main roles – Leonard Bernstein’s own recording of West Side Story was a highlight – but in the UK live performances stayed much as they had always been.
John Wilson has changed all that. His concerts bring academic research and Broadway razzmatazz face to face: original orchestrations are carefully sought out and played by a full-scale symphony orchestra of hand-picked musicians. Although he founded the John Wilson Orchestra as far back as 1994, it has been the annual outings to the BBC Proms that have put the orchestra in the spotlight, and there seems no reason why the formula should not work just as effectively elsewhere.
His autumn tour arrived in London on Monday. The focus this time was Richard Rodgers, mostly & Hammerstein, but occasionally & Hart. This cleverly mixed numbers from their new CD – Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies – with some tart interpolations from Hart so that an evening of nose-to-tail show favourites did not become cloying.
Three of Wilson’s top singers, plus a star guest, were on the bill. A pair of contrasting sopranos, the sassy, trumpet-voiced Kim Criswell and the soothing Annalene Beechey, shared out solos from Oklahoma! and The Sound of Music. Julian Ovenden must surely be the best leading man in musicals today (the CD includes Billy’s big soliloquy from Carousel, which sadly he did not sing here). Thomas Allen, his baritone now gloriously rusty, showed how an opera singer really can punch his weight. Best of all was the John Wilson Orchestra itself, giving us proud saxophone and trombone solos as scorching as any midsummer sun.