mon 24/06/2024

Prom 30: The Warner Brothers Story, John Wilson Orchestra review – orchestral riches | reviews, news & interviews

Prom 30: The Warner Brothers Story, John Wilson Orchestra review – orchestral riches

Prom 30: The Warner Brothers Story, John Wilson Orchestra review – orchestral riches

The master of light music keeps on unearthing gems

Louise Dearman - delightfulAll images by Mark Allan

Wisecracks can be profound. The late André Previn – who spent most of the period from his late teens to his mid-thirties working in film studios – once responded to a critic’s snub that the music of Korngold all sounded like Hollywood with the line: “No, Hollywood music all sounds like Korngold.”

Last night’s Prom was under the title “The Warner Brothers Story” and its highlights came in works by the two European émigrés Korngold and Max Steiner. The programme showed quite how far-reaching the consequences were of Warner Brothers’ decision in the early 1930s, and at the beginning of the era of the ‘talkies’, to put out the welcome mat and a substantial budget to employ Korngold. “The cheapskate studio,” as it was referred to in the pre-concert talk, over-rode its normal instincts and habits when it came to music, and lavish orchestral colour and opulence were the hallmarks of this whole Prom.   

The concert programme was bookended with works by Korngold, opening with a swashbuckling overture for a movie starring Errol Flynn, The Sea Hawk from 1940, and ending with an astonishing piece, the only work from Korngold’s entire film catalogue to which Korngold dignified with an opus number, “The Constant Nymph” from 1943. Korngold seemed to set out to outdo Richard Strauss in orchestral drama and heft. This fitting finale also unleashed rich-toned American mezzo Kate Lindsay on superb form on her tantalisingly short Proms debut (pictured below), the Maida Vale Singers in full voice and even the building-shaking splendour the Royal Albert Hall’s Father Willis organ. And the second encore, a forward-looking  "Harry’s Wondrous World" from Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by John Williams had brass episodes that Korngold himself would have been proud of.The John Wilson Orchestra uses a press quote as its strap-line: “technicolor for the ears.” And Wilson stays very true to that mission: the belief that he has in the music he presents is infectious. He has, for example, described Max Steiner’s score to the film Now, Voyager, starring Bette Davis, as “the most effective and enriching score ever written for a movie.” The Prom presented an orchestral suite which Wilson has extracted from himself, it and, providing the critic takes the precaution of leaving any aversion to schmaltz behind, it does indeed come across as a very strong score. Excellent solo violin (John Mills)and cello (Jonathan Aasgaard) were shamelessly romantic protagonists, and there were also echoes of the time-suspending closing movement of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde.

This was a programme in which the work of the singers was to some extent eclipsed. The main three were Wilson stalwart Matt Ford, the young Canadian-born Mikaela Bennett, and Louise Dearman. Of the three, it was Dearman who has the most engaging stage persona. She was delightful in “the Deadwood Stage” from Calamity Jane from 1953, although somewhat at a disadvantage singing in a concert dress rather than the more suitable attire that Doris Day wore unforgettably in the film as she climbed over a stage coach, thigh-slapped and whipcracked away. The relative absence of singers with larger-than-life stage personalities gave a nice sense of re-balancing to the show, in the sense that it allowed attention to be focussed on the chorus and orchestra. When Mikaela Bennett sang “I Could have Danced All Night”  from My Fair Lady it was the nagging cockney voices from the chorus (“You’re up too late, miss”/ “Settle down and go to bed”) which stayed delightfully in the mind. And Matt Ford didn’t seem to mind that he was upstaged by the orchestral percussionist providing the sound of horses’ hooves in “Get Me to the Church on Time”.

This orchestra does have stars whose work would shine through even with bigger characters out front. There is no more solid rhythmic foundation in any orchestra or big band than that provided by drummer Matt Skelton, and the high-wire lead trumpet skills of Mike Lovatt, in that honourable London tradition that goes back via Derek Watkins to Eddie Blair, made their mark faultlessly whenever they were called on.

The John Wilson Orchestra has been appearing at the Proms since 2009, and concert programmes devised by the Tyneside-born conductor (pictured above) are now a regular and popular feature. A programme like last night's serves as a good reminder of the hidden riches from the film music canon that remain to be unearthed. My companion’s first and instinctive response to hearing the “Now Voyager” said it all: “I want to see that film now.” 



The BBC should give full credit at the end to all composers, lyricists and arrangers. It is totally irrelevant to roll out every TV technician, their assistance or others of no musical or artistic contribution.

I think Marcus Osterdahl meant assistants not assistance. Changes the meaning somewhat which I disagree with anyway. The principle technicians, producers etc. at the BBC deserve some notoriety for the excellent quality of their work.

Absolutely agree. Superb and very moving program by the outstanding skills of John Wilson and the entire team of musicians. I have never seen such animated playing by any orchestra and it's a total joy to see and hear this wonderful snappy team Indeed the BBC should give more credit to all the people you list.BBC radio 4 is very bad at this. They constantly use music during drama and other presentations which bring a whole extra dynamic to the program but during the credits at the end of the program neither the music used nor the composer ever get a mention.

A reader kindly corrected the title I had put in for the Harry Potter encore and I have duly changed it. 

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