The Wizard of Oz – John Wilson & BBC Symphony Orchestra

The Wizard of Oz

Film screening with live performance of the original film score

Songs by Harold Arlen & E. Y. Harburg
Instrumental underscore by Herbert Stothart

Original orchestrations reconstructed by John Wilson & Andrew Cottee

BBC Symphony Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 4 May, 2012
Venue: Symphony Hall, Birmingham

Ray Bolger as Scarecrow, Judy Garland as Dorothy & Jack Haley as Tin Man (The Wizard of Oz)L. Frank Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was recognised as having musical potential right from the start. Baum’s collaboration with composer Paul Tietjens (amongst others) in 1902, now largely forgotten, was familiar to MGM’s screenwriters in the late-1930s, and ideas, such as the snow that breaks the poppy spell, were successfully transferred from the earlier musical to the film version.

Despite the obvious potential – and largely positive reviews – the film was not an immediate box-office success, with MGM initially failing to recoup its investment. Future releases made up for this with songs by Yip Harburg and Harold Arlen, written for the film, becoming some of the best-known in cinematic history.

The film has been shown on television many times and yet a two-thirds-full Symphony Hall demonstrated that, over seventy-years later, it still has pulling power. Indeed many of the younger members of the audience, perhaps seeing the movie for the first time, were as engaged in the adventures of Dorothy as were their parents and grandparents. The ‘feel-good’ factor has clearly not diminished.

John Wilson. Photograph: his BBC Proms debut in 2007, John Wilson has been a regular conductor at the festival – this year conducting two concerts. Wilson’s lifelong interest in film music has gained him a reputation as not only a gifted arranger but also an authority on the genre. In 2009 the celebration of Classic MGM musicals brought his scholarly pursuit to national prominence. A further visit to the Proms in August 2011, entitled Hooray for Hollywood, is currently touring the UK. The reconstruction of the music for The Wizard of Oz is a project that dates back to 2007 when he, and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, gave the first European performance of the new score, synchronised with the film, as it was on this evening in Birmingham.

Astonishingly the orchestral scores for MGM musicals were used as landfill for a golf course in 1969 as, in the opinion of studio-heads, they took up too much space, and a new car park was needed. Wilson’s mission, a labour of love, has been through incredible attention to detail and an infallible ear to restore such music. Armed with only the MGM-conductor books and some condensed versions of the scores, Wilson has tirelessly reconstructed the compositions – perfecting the soundtracks.

Without apology, Wilson addressed the audience to say that he hoped to redress the balance between underscoring and the original soundtrack, including the famous songs (heard as vocally recorded for the film), something achieved with a fine and responsive BBC Symphony Orchestra navigating Herbert Stothart’s monumental score with aplomb, only drowning out the on-screen action on one occasion during the storm scene.

The quantity and quality of underscoring that is heard in The Wizard of Oz is surprising. Of the 101 minutes of film, as much as three-quarters (maybe more) has musical accompaniment. As with many of the best film scores, the music is complimentary to the action: an enhancement, never a distraction. So it is easy to miss things while your attention is fixed on the celluloid. Through a clever use of musical leitmotifs, connections that are not apparent until later in the film are much clearer in a live performance, especially in one as good as this, the score sparkling as brightly as it no doubt did in 1939.

John Wilson’s indefatigable work continues to bring the music of this bygone, doubtless golden, age of film music to a new generation as well as the many that grew up with it. His unquestionable musicianship together with an unswerving search for authenticity is deserving of the highest critical acclaim.

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