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For many decades the BBC Proms’ annual nod to “light music” took the form of tired evenings of Johann Strauss or Gilbert and Sullivan. That was before the John Wilson Orchestra came on to the scene in 2009. Almost immediately its appearances became the hot ticket of the season – high-octane performances of musical theatre from Broadway and Hollywood, thoroughly researched, dazzlingly performed.
Now the John Wilson Orchestra has itself become an annual fixture. Its Prom for 2014, a semi-staged performance of Kiss Me, Kate, was in some ways the most important so far. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Cole Porter’s death and, unlike Gershwin or Rodgers and Hammerstein, he is not one of those mid-20th-century American popular composers who are already well up the ladder towards acceptance as part of the classical tradition.
Now would seem to be a good time to climb another rung or two. As John Wilson points out, Porter last week joined the illustrious circle of composers on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week, a choice made no doubt with an eye on the Prom. “He is one of a group of half a dozen truly important songwriters from a golden era, alongside Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin,” says Wilson. “Each of them gave us something unique. In Porter’s case it was that patina of social pedigree with its deep, rich chromatic sound, and his lyrics are full of topical references that capture the spirit of his time. The great composers of that period have come of age now. It is more than mere nostalgia.”
If so, that means taking the music seriously. There has been interest in going back to how the music sounded when it was first performed for a while, but the recent completion of a critical edition of Kiss Me, Kate marks a major step forwards. Four years in the making, it took its editors, David Charles Abell and Seann Alderking, back to the original scores and instrumental parts of 1948 to compile the definitive version – “as critical to Porter’s reputation as a Mozart edition”, in Wilson’s words.
This new edition calls for a 42-piece orchestra, large by theatre standards, though nothing like the full-scale battalion Wilson has brought to the Proms in the past. Perhaps some of the audience last Saturday were disappointed to see a relatively modest line-up, but this, in the best traditional of Wilson’s Prom nights, was the authentic size and sound of Broadway in 1948.
With his handpicked musicians, Wilson gets a standard of playing that is almost never heard in the theatre. Here was an ensemble that felt constantly in flight, strings soaring in the melodies, the brass nimble in these virtuoso orchestrations.
Having a smaller orchestra meant there was more space at the front of the platform. Stage director Shaun Kerrison used what room he had for some dance routines, but they were a compromise for the real thing. Most of the full company’s scenes here would have seemed halfhearted in the theatre, albeit there was compensation in the scintillating orchestral playing through the dance numbers. Irritatingly, passages such as the “Rose Dance” and “Tarantella” would have made more impact without any dancing at all.
The cast, though, was strong. Two American principals, Alexandra Silber and Ben Davis, were well chosen for Lilli and Fred, the Katharine and Petruchio in the play-within-a-play of The Taming of the Shrew, both singing strongly and sparring with a nice balance of stinging venom and rapier-sharp wit. Louise Dearman brought the house down with “Always True to You in my Fashion”, Lois Lane’s hit number, and James Doherty and Michael Jibson were delightfully deadpan as the two conmen instructing the Royal Albert Hall audience on how to “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”.
Where will Cole Porter go from here? The John Wilson Orchestra has an anniversary tour, with selected songs from Porter’s shows, this autumn. Received opinion is that only a handful of the shows have books that are strong enough to warrant a theatre revival, though Chichester Festival Theatre’s success with Out of this World in 2004 suggests the list is longer than some might think. No doubt the BBC Proms will want to move on after the 50th anniversary, but as the audience went out with their toes tapping, the Proms have taken Porter another rung up the ladder.
Photograph: Getty Images