John Wilson Orchestra in Bristol

As the John Wilson Orchestra tours the country, recreating the sound of George Gershwin’s film music, Neil McKim catches up with them at the Colston Hall

John Wilson Orchestra in Bristol
John Wilson Orchestra

The Overture to a 1945 Gershwin biopic, entitled Rhapsody in Blue, gave a taster of what was to come at Bristol’s Colston Hall, as some of the composer’s most recognisable tunes, including ‘I Got Rhythm’ and ‘The Man I Love’ were woven in with soaring elements from the title piece. We were about to hear many of these tunes, played in their original cinematic orchestrations, as rediscovered by The John Wilson Orchestra (above).

Wilson has been a regular feature at the BBC Proms, since his groundbreaking 2009 Prom that featured reconstructed orchestrations from the golden age of MGM’s musicals that he had painstakingly put back together. An instant hit, his orchestra – which draws musicians from the ranks of symphony orchestras and West End shows – has proved a Proms sell-out every year. This was the penultimate stop on its current nationwide tour entitled ‘Gershwin in Hollywood’ with a programme that includes scores that Wilson has dug out from the vaults of the film studios, alongside a fresh batch of his own reconstructions of lost MGM arrangements.

Wilson’s Hollywood studio-style orchestra, featured a jazz rhythm section, big-band style brass, a string section of 30-plus players, woodwind, a harp, two pianos and lavish percussion. With Wilson in tails, conducting each twist and turn of tune and tempo from the front, the ensemble looked and sounded the part. ‘Treat me Rough’, from MGM’s Girl Crazy, 1943, introduced the evening’s two singers, Louise Dearman and Matt Ford who effortlessly tackled the well-loved tunes. You could have heard a pin drop during Dearman’s unaccompanied version of ‘The Man I Love’. It’s interesting to note that the actor Mickey Rooney (1920-2014) who sang some of the tunes in the original films, was still treading the boards here in Bristol, just seven years ago, doing the pantomime down the road at the Hippodrome.

Trumpeter Michael Lovatt delivered some of his trademark sparkling high solos, thanks in part to a nifty swap of mouthpiece. These were spread more thinly than at the BBC Proms but with no loss of impact. In ‘Slap that Bass’, from Shall We Dance, 1935, the jazz rhythm section rose to the fore, as did the big band on ‘Oh Lady, Be Good’. This saw a star performance by clarinettist Matthew Billing, capturing the spriralling virtuosity of the great bandleader Artie Shore. And, thanks to an advance tip-off by Wilson, the audience was treated to a quote from Gershwin’s Second Piano concerto – by the four French horns – in MGM’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away From Me’.

‘We have a jazz pianist… and a normal pianist,’ announced Wilson wryly, as the latter, Ian Buckle, took to the stage for Gershwin’s New York Rhapsody. Wilson explained that this version – which Gershwin later expanded to become his Second Rhapsody – was used in a film [that wasn’t a commercial success] called Delicious. The music, however, is captivating, portraying the scurrying excitement of New York and the percussive rivet-fixers to great effect.

Some of these films may be slipping from popular memory but it’s a real privilege to hear this music brought back to life so vividly by such top-class players. Long may they continue to do so.

For further information about the John Wilson Orchestra click here

  • Article Type: | Blog |
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