It was the biggest orchestra John Wilson had ever fielded for his annual Prom jamboree and this time the stage – or should I say silver screen – was all theirs. I’m pretty certain the actual 20th Century Fox soundstage never resounded to playing of quite this quality or opulence and when the strings took up their rising arpeggios in the Fox Fanfare the sheer succulence of the sound was a surprise to even my ears. The John Wilson Orchestra is heading for Hollywood (that’s Hollywood, Los Angeles) for a one-night-only showcase in the autumn; that’s a first, and I’ll wager they’ll have la-la-land’s movers and shakers reaching for their superlatives and better yet their chequebooks. There’s no substitute for the calibre of players that Wilson assembles in this band. They come from far and wide and they all want to be there – wherever he is and wherever he goes.
But it’s not just the quality of the playing, it’s the breadth of understanding in the style that Wilson communicates with such aplomb. There was a moment during the songful heart of Max Steiner’s Suite from Casablanca (and has Sam’s upright piano and that song ever sounded more evocative outside of the movie) where the phrasing in the strings seemed to emanate from some inner urge. That’s not about the conducting, that’s about telepathy. And in Franz Waxman’s A Place in the Sun we were into a saxophone led sauna of sound – stunningly sophisticated and contemporary with those plangent anxiety-wracked cadenzas more redolent of Turnage than anything we’ve come to expect from a movie score. What a piece of work that is.
Herrmann’s Psycho score remains, though, the mother of all invention with its monochromatic strings driving Janet Leigh all the way to an uncomfortable shower chez Norman’s Bates Motel. You’re not going to hear the trenchant downbows any more penetrating than this and the suspense of those ethereally still moments (the ten-second warning to avert your eyes) were just about killing me and everyone else before the most infamous sonority in all movie music – the shriek of knife-slashing violins – brought some release in nervous laughter from the arena and beyond. And no expense spared either in bringing us the spoof aria – “Salammbo’s Aria” – we never actually hear in full during Herrmann’s movie scoring debut for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Wilson’s horns were bells-raised for their grandiloquent descants and a fearless and very promising young Russian soprano, Venera Gimadieva, nailed the top D – which is more than Kiri Te Kanawa ever did in the celebrated Charles Gerhardt recording. Hers was tacked on in the edit, if indeed it was hers?
There was even Tom and Jerryskirmishing between The Big Country (Jerome Moross’ classic prairie-scape) and Ben-Hur and it’s a good job Health and Safety weren’t on hand when the plate-smashing and bin-crashing began. I tell you, there’s nothing quite as precarious as a game of cat and mouse in the percussion section or indeed anything more onomatopoeic than the riotous slapstick of Scott Bradley’s ear-popping underscoring – as much sound effects as music but brilliant with it. Bet Bradley never thought he’d make it to the Proms.
And that wasn’t quite all, folks. Miklos Rosza’s magnificent Oscar-winning turn for William Wyler’s remake of Ben-Hur brought the Albert Hall organ into play and with the arrival of the charioteers it was very much a case of move over Respighi this march is going to trump you and then some.
I’m not normally one for bragging but I did get the encore before the BBC Tweeted it. I remember seeing Taras Bulba at the Odeon Haymarket and from Franz Waxman’s cracking score “The Ride of the Cossacks” (as opposed to Valkyries, notwithstanding the presence of Wagner tubas) plainly stayed with me. Cracking concert.
photo: John Wilson conducts the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC Proms
Credit/copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou