Since 2009, when the John Wilson Orchestra impressed the nation with its special BBC Prom dedicated to the golden era of MGM studios, the orchestra’s appearance has remained one of the hottest tickets of the season.
But first, a little background. ‘I suppose nothing for us will beat the thrill of the surprise factor of the 2009 Prom because nobody knew what to expect,’ Wilson recalled, speaking to BBC Music Magazine a few years ago. ‘The orchestra had been going for 15 years and for us getting into the Proms was a bit like entering the kingdom of heaven.’
That Prom, which featured studio scores that had been painstakingly re-created to be as close as possible to the long lost originals, was an instant success. Every year, the orchestra – which can sometimes be as large as 114 players, with two pianos and two harps on stage – has revisited classic tunes from the Hollywood and Broadway. Here are five highlights…
‘I Got Rhythm’ by George Gershwin (2016)
This is one of the highlights of the first John Wilson Prom. It's a sparkling rendition of Gershwin’s timeless tune from the musical Girl Crazy given by singer Kim Criswell backed by the Maida Vale Singers. In the instrumental section the tempo really hots up and the upper strings even stand up. It's as if the whole orchestra is racing to the glorious finish.
In 2013, the John Wilson Orchestra, performed more great Hollywood film scores, opening with the sparkling 20th-Century Fox Fanfare which has launched so many films. Wilson used the full force of his vast orchestra for the swirling main theme of Jerome Moross’s The Big Country. He also included a delightful medley of Scott Bradley’s music from the cartoons of Tom and Jerry complete with a lots of percussive hijinks and some wonderful trumpet solos by orchestra regular Mike Lovatt.
‘Tap Your Troubles Away’ from Mack and Mabel by Jerry Herman (2012)
In 2012 there was a tremendous surprise in store for the Albert Hall audience at the end of the ‘John Wilson on Broadway’ Prom. Singer Anna Jane Casey had earlier given a perfect rendition of Barbara Streisand’s ‘Don’t Rain on My Parade’ and she returned to the stage, unannounced, with 14 tap dancers for Jerry Herman's ‘Tap Your Troubles Away’. It was a spectacular finish and received a rapturous applause.
‘Brush up on your Shakespeare’ from Kiss Me Kate by Cole Porter (2014)
In 2014, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Cole Porter, Wilson and his orchestra turned their attention to songs from ‘Kiss Me Kate’ – the musical about a Broadway production of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. There’s plenty of humour at Wilson’s shows and this wry duet gives a Broadway slant to ‘…the poet people call the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon'. The orchestrations were again restored to be as close as possible to the original 1948 version.
‘Singin’ in the Rain’ by Arthur Freed, Nacio Herb Brown
The final piece from the first MGM Prom was ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ with Seth MacFarlane (below) singing. An avid fan of the golden age of Hollywood, the creator of the cartoon Family Guy has a voice that perfectly captures that era. MacFarlane was also hugely successful during last year’s 2015 Prom, featuring the music of Frank Sinatra.
The Albert Hall audience sported umbrellas for this timeless tune that fades out to xylophone.
Information for John Wilson's Prom 29: The Warner Brothers Story is available here.