John Wilson

On providing good quality light entertainment

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John WilsonWhen John Wilson and his orchestra performed a programme of music from classic MGM films at the 2009 BBC Proms, he was overwhelmed by the reaction. Two years – and two Proms performances – later he’s releasing a recording called 'Rodgers & Hammerstein: at the movies'. We talked to him about the hunger for quality light entertainment and the sheer effort involved in appearing effortless…

Your new disc includes music from Oklahoma!, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I and The Sound of Music. How did you choose the programme?
In 2010 we did a Prom of Rodgers & Hammerstein music using exactly the same repertoire, so I put the programme together for that. It was a bit like playing a three-dimensional game of chess – you had to find something which worked musically, representing all of the right shows from the period. They also had to suit the voices and have a certain soundworld that suited my orchestra.

Much of the music had to be ‘reconstructed’ – can you explain what that involves?
A lot of the music for old Hollywood musicals doesn’t survive because nobody ever thought they’d need it again. They often threw away the full scores and orchestral parts but kept what they call ‘piano conductors’, which are skeleton scores from which you have to be a detective and fill in all the gaps. Rodgers & Hammerstein looked after their material rather better but for some of the numbers on the recording nothing survived so we just had to listen to the soundtracks and restore them by listening over and over again. That was very boring. 

You’ve got a real mix of singers on the recording – from opera star Joyce DiDonato to West End leading lady Anna-Jane Casey…
The pieces call for different kinds of voices. The things Joyce sings [‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, ‘June is Bustin’ Out All Over’ and ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’] are not necessarily operatic but are written for the very traditional musical theatre voice – but Joyce is incredibly flexible and open to suggestions.

On the recording it sounds like the orchestra and singers are having great fun – is this music enjoyable to record?
You know, people often ask me that and actually it’s bloody hard work. The end product may sound fun, but when we made this record we were sweating at the end of each session – it’s incredibly challenging and difficult to get dead right. The end product in light music is that it should sound deft and effortless and that effortlessness and lightness of touch is only achieved through great commitment and a lot of effort from the people who are playing it. This music was written for virtuoso orchestras – the movie orchestras of the 1950s were some of the greatest orchestras in the world. There needs to be a lot of commitment in the string tone, and the articulation in the brass and the woodwind writing has to be incredibly vivid. There has to be a certain sheen, polish, finish to the playing for it to come off.

Do you have a favourite film from this era?
No I don’t, isn’t that awful? I’ll always have a special soft spot for all those MGM films that we did because they’re terrifyingly difficult to play and the harder they are the more fun we have with them.

Rodgers & Hammerstein: At the Movies is released on 1 October. The John Wilson Orchestra will be touring the UK from 20 October. More details here.