John Wilson

After the huge success of the MGM Musicals Prom in 2009, the British conductor tells us about celebrating Rodgers and Hammerstein 

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Last year’s MGM Musical Prom was a huge success. Do you think it’s going to be hard to top that this year?

I think it is going to be hard to top it, so I’m deliberately not trying to. I’m going to take a side-step. I think the secret of last year’s Prom was that the material was so good. You’ve got songs written by the top-drawer popular song composers of the last century – Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin – and then all that music was processed through the big departments of the movie studios, in this case MGM. You had music staff of the highest calibre who’d all been trained in Europe, in some cases with Schoenberg, and with Paul Dukas at the Paris Conservatoire.

People still are sort of snobbish – not musicians, never musicians – and think a second-rate performance of a Beethoven symphony is somehow better than a first-rate performance of a piece of light music. Light music was the province of real expert musicians 50 years ago, so I’m just trying to reinstate the standards of that era more than anything else. There’s an enormous, completely under-served audience for this kind of music.

Are you going to tap into that audience again this year?

This Prom sold out in 15 minutes, so I’m told. I got thousands of letters and emails after the MGM Prom, thousands. Still getting them! I knew it’d ruffle a few feathers, but I didn’t think of this. The number of musicians who’ve come up to me and said it was the single most talked about concert last year among musicians – it’s all gratifying and slightly bewildering.

How did you go about choosing the music for this year's Prom?

Proms controller Roger Wright invited me to do a concert marking the 50th anniversary of the death of the lyricist Oscar Hammerstein. My orchestra – the John Wilson Orchestra – specialises in film music, so I decided to revive the original film orchestrations.

Most of what we’re doing hasn’t been played in concert since the original film recording sessions. We’re doing the film versions of The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Flower Drum Song, Carousel, The Sound of Music – mainly this time the films were produced by 20th Century Fox, not MGM, but it’s that same sumptious, expensive sound, which is perfect for the Royal Albert Hall.

Did you have to reconstruct any of the scores?

Yes, not as much as last year, but every single piece has been newly originated, edited and reconstructed. At least a third of the music we had to put together from scratch.

What do you think made the Rodgers and Hammerstein partnership so fruitful?

It’s funny because when Richard Rodgers started to collaborate with Hammerstein after the death of Lorenz Hart, his style changed completely. It became much more expansive and operatic. Certainly broader, with longer lines and bigger forms. It was like a digestible folk opera style. The warmth of the melodies, the expansiveness, and a certain grandeur make it very attractive.

What makes your orchestra suited to performing film music?

The orchestra’s been together a good 15 years and its make-up is very specific. It’s modelled on the old contract movie orchestras in America. And that's basically the combination of a dance-band brass, rhythm and saxophone section, so four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes who all double, and a rhythm section, who are all very specific specialists in this style. And then on top of that you have a woodwind and French horn section.

But I think the key thing is getting the right string players. It has to be a very high octane, high gloss, soloist sort of player. The string sound isn’t blended down, it’s blended up. You play up to the best. It’s a very in-your-face, expensive sort of string sound and it takes a lot of playing. You have to have the best players, but we're spoilt in this country for terrific orchestral performers.

Interview by Rebecca Franks

Prom 49 – A celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein – takes place on Sunday 22 August at 4pm

Related links:

CD Review: John Wilson conducts Coates
CD Review: Ireland orchestral songs and miniatures conducted by John Wilson