Prom 38: John Wilson Orchestra with Louise Dearman, Matthew Ford & Julian Ovenden – George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered

“John Wilson and his orchestra return to pay tribute to George and Ira Gershwin, one of America’s most celebrated song-writing duos, with favourites including ‘Embraceable You’, ‘Love Walked In’, ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’ and the ballet music from the 1951 film An American in Paris.” [BBC Proms website]

Louise Dearman, Matthew Ford & Julian Ovenden (singers)

Maida Vale Singers

John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Chris Caspell

Reviewed: 13 August, 2016
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

John Wilson conducts the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC PromsPhotograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouWhile George Gershwin is the headline-grabbing name in this, the annual Proms appearance by John Wilson’s Orchestra, he is but one of five composers jostling for space in a concert of marking the 120th-anniversary of his brother Ira’s birth. When George died suddenly of a brain tumour in 1937, aged 39, devastated Ira only returning to writing when teaming up with Kurt Weill for Lady in the Dark in 1941. Ira lived until 1983 and collaborated with some of the greatest composers of musicals, including Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and Harry Warren, but it is the lyrics written for his brother for which he is best remembered.

A rumbustious romp through some of George’s finest tunes was a sure-fire winner to open the evening. Entitled ‘Rhapsody in Blue – overture’ the connection being his 1924 composition for Paul Whiteman. Like much of the music heard here, this medley is by the arranger associated with the movie, here MGM’s Ray Heindorf, who was also responsible for the arrangements for A Star is Born). However, the score from the movie opens with the upward clarinet glissando heard in Gershwin’s original (scored by Ferde Grofé) which was not heard. Despite the confused credit, musically it is delightful, highlighting ‘Swanee’ (lyrics not by Ira), together with ‘Fascinating Rhythm’, ‘Embraceable You’ and ‘Strike Up the Band’.

Mixed reviews greeted the movie when released in 1945 as the fanciful storyline bore little relationship to the facts of George’s life. One critique commented that “the brilliant music is the best – in fact, the only – intrinsically right thing about the film.” This is brilliant music played at its best.

(L-R) Julian Ovenden and Matthew Ford perform with John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC PromsPhotograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouEvery piece this evening (apart from from Shall We Dance) was taken from a film released after the George’s death. George and Ira were a big box-office attraction and so Mamma Mia’-style movies, with their greatest hits woven loosely around a plot, were common.

A concert of show-tunes without vocalists would be a poor affair and Wilson’s regular companions – Louise Dearman, Matthew Ford and Julian Ovenden – did not disappoint. Improvements to the amplification this year were of benefit with sounds stemming directly from the stage rather than from high above it.

The Maida Vale Singers, making a brief appearance in the first half (ladies only in ‘Treat Me Rough’ from Girl Crazy), came back in full, and in fine voice, later, including something all to themselves – ‘The Swing-Trot’ from The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). The music was almost entirely provided by Harry Warren with lyrics by Ira – the exception being George’s ‘They Can’t Take That Away from Me’ that first appeared in Shall We Dance. ‘You’d Be Hard to Replace’, a rapturous ballad, sung by Ford, revealed a softer side to this vocalist who sang with emotional depth.

John Wilson conducts the John Wilson Orchestra at the BBC PromsPhotograph: BBC/Chris ChristodoulouAn American in Paris, from 1951, was inspired by George’s 1928 eponymous orchestral work. With the story and screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner and arrangements by Conrad Salinger, this film with Gene Kelly took the best from the Gershwins’ catalogue and wove them around a story to become a multi-Oscar-winning motion picture, and include ‘I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise’ – given a sassy presentation by Ovenden; ‘S’Wonderful’, a whistling Ford joining Ovenden – and an incredible ballet set to a stylised version of the original. This arrangement, like Rhapsody in Blue, was truncated, probably to good effect as the movie sequence has a significant amount of repetition. Brazen trumpet riffs and trombone glissandos were effective; however it was hard not to compare to Gershwin’s real McCoy and find it wanting.

Louise Dearman’s slow-burn take on Arlen’s ‘The Man That Got Away’ offered the concert’s best performance. Written for Judy Garland and the 1954 A Star is Born, Dearman’s smoky lower register built gradually to a glorious climax. George Cukor said of the filming of this scene, “I think we’ve generated a lot of sex” – Dearman did, too.

The first encore, also from A Star is Born, was the equally perfect ‘It’s a New World’, its poignancy not lost on Dearman, and she sang the unaccompanied opening to perfection. Burton Lane is best-known for Finian’s Rainbow and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; however he wrote music for more than thirty movies. Give a Girl a Break is a 1953 musical-comedy film with Debbie Reynolds and dancers Marge and Gower Champion. One of MGM’s failures (it lost over one-million dollars), musically the inclusion of ‘In Our United State’ sung by Ovenden and ‘Applause, Applause’ – which included the audience – seemed second-rate even allowing for the lightshow.

The presentation was slick. The John Wilson Orchestra is now a past-master at entertaining us, with players standing for solos and, most notably, in ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ (from Girl Crazy) where the trumpeters used what looked like coloured bowler-hats to mute their instruments. Wilson himself, all the while in control of his musicians, ensured, once again, a concert to delight.

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