The John Wilson Orchestra, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Thursday November 20th *****
It used to be the Christmas edition of the Radio Times that would work classic movie lovers into a festive frenzy each year, but these days, the biggest pre-Christmas thrill for film fans in Glasgow is the annual visit to the Concert Hall by the man who it wouldn’t be far-fetched to describe as the patron saint of Hollywood musicals: John Wilson.
In previous years, Wilson and his wonderful orchestra have brought programmes themed around the musicals of MGM and Fox, as well as by Richard Rodgers. This time, it was the Hollywood oeuvre of the great songwriter/composer Cole Porter which was celebrated, to mark the 50th anniversary of his death – a fact that prompted one old biddy in the audience to loudly respond “Aw”, as if news of Porter’s death was just breaking.
Good humour abounded, thanks partly to Wilson’s entertaining introductions and largely to the wit in Porter’s lyrics which the quartet of singers clearly relished performing. Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford’s You’re the Top highlighted the fact that the song is akin to screwball comedy banter set to jazzy music. The dark side of Porter shone through on So In Love, while two less familiar ballads – Between You and Me and You Can Do No Wrong – were pure romance.
The star, however, was the band with its joyful playing, its obvious devotion to its conductor and its brilliance creating both a sumptuous, MGM-worthy sound and a swinging big band vibe. It seduced the audience with its glorious opening medley, and enthralled throughout – notably on the swoonsomely romantic Silk Stockings ballet. As Mr Porter might have said: “You’re the top, you’re the Hepburn posture. You’re the top; you’re the Wilson Orch’stra … ”
* First published in The Herald, Monday November 24th
The John Wilson Orchestra: That’s Entertainment, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Friday November 22nd *****
It’s unlikely that there will ever be an orchestral concert that’s as thrilling to this movie fan as the first MGM Musicals concert that conductor John Wilson and The John Wilson Orchestra gave in Glasgow in 2010, with a quartet of singers including Curtis Stigers and Seth MacFarlane. But Friday’s return to the Concert Hall with a programme drawn from the same source came close on a number of occasions.
It’s not just the fact that Wilson has lovingly reconstructed the lost orchestrations by the great arrangers and composers who worked for MGM’s Freed Unit and who gave the studio its luxurious, distinctive house style. Nor is it the fact that he always has the best musicians in his band to play them. It’s the thrill of hearing songs you have only ever heard on TV or record, in your home, being brought dynamically to life with the utmost attention to every detail of the original version of which everyone is so fond.
In 2010, Singin’ in the Rain and The Trolley Song produced this magical effect. On Friday, the stand-outs were A Couple of Swells – brilliantly performed by Anna-Jane Casey and Matthew Ford – and High Society’s I Love You Samantha, with trumpeter Mike Lovett in the Louis Armstrong role.
Other highlights included a spectacular I Got Rhythm, with the orchestra giving the fabulous Dorsey band a run for its money, numbers from Cole Porter’s Silk Stockings, and the entire An American in Paris ballet. Lowlights? The £7 programme price tag, and the borderline scary crush as a good proportion of the full house tried to leave the Concert Hall onto Killermont Street – via one exit.
First published in The Herald, Monday November 25th
Hooray for Hollywood, Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Wednesday December 7
Anyone who fell under the spell of the charismatic John Wilson and his sensational orchestra after watching them performing their concert of classic songs from MGM musicals would know that that show was a hard act to follow. The MGM concert featured some of the greatest numbers ever written for the movies and in the most sumptuous arrangements; and the Glasgow concert last November was spine-tingling from start to finish.
This year’s tour – which rolled into the Usher Hall on Wednesday – focused on songs from musicals made by every other studio. RKO, Disney, Paramount, Warners and Fox were all represented (rather bizarrely in a couple of the choices) – and while the concert featured fewer thrills than last year’s, it still produced magical moments a-plenty from the swinging 42nd Street which introduced the quartet of singers through to such stand-out duets as Noah Stewart and Sarah Fox’s electrifying One Hand, One Heart and Stewart’s commanding solo on Sigmund Romberg’s Serenade.
These two more operatic singers produced the showstopping vocal moments; Kim Criswell and Matthew Ford were at times overpowered and overshadowed by the orchestra behind them, notably on the exquisite The Man Who Got Away.
Indeed, the John Wilson Orchestra – the happiest and most animated orchestra you’re likely to see – was THE main star of the evening: not only did it produce a gorgeous and luxurious sound but its choreographed bow-taking (each section did a wee comedy turn) couldn’t have been better staged by the great Busby Berkeley himself …
* Published in The Scotsman, Friday December 9.