Rodgers & Hammerstein

Rodgers & Hammerstein
Oklahoma! – Overture; Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’; People Will Say We’re In Love
Carousel – Waltz; If I Loved You (abridged); June Is Bustin’ Out All Over; Soliloquy
South Pacific – I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair; Bali Ha’i; There Is Nothing Like A Dame; This Nearly Was Mine; Twin Soliloquies; Some Enchanted Evening
The King and I – Overture
Flower Drum Song – I Enjoy Being A Girl; You Are Beautiful; Grant Avenue
The Sound of Music – Main Title; I Have Confidence; Something Good; Climb Ev’ry Mountain

Kim Criswell, Anna-Jane Casey, Sierra Boggess, Julian Ovenden (vocalists) & Rod Gilfry (baritone)

Maida Vale Singers

John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson

Reviewed by: Michael Darvell

Reviewed: 22 August, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

This Promenade Concert was scheduled to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the death on 23 August of Oscar Hammerstein II (1895-1960). However, you could not celebrate the work of the great American lyricist without mentioning composer Richard Rodgers (1902-79), for they enjoyed their greatest successes when working together. They had already collaborated with others. Rodgers arguably did more for the popular song with Lorenz Hart as his lyricist, than even his work with Hammerstein achieved; and Hammerstein had worked with the likes of Rudolf Friml on “Rose-Marie” (1924), with Sigmund Romberg on “The Desert Song” (1926) and “The New Moon” (1928) and with Jerome Kern on several shows including the groundbreaking “Show Boat”. This last was in 1927 when “Show Boat” was the first musical to deal with important themes such as racial prejudice and miscegenation in a mixture of what was then half operetta and half musical comedy. It provided the stepping stone to a change in direction for the musical theatre of Broadway and it was Rodgers & Hammerstein who eventually led the way.

However, it took another sixteen years before the next serious musical could come along apart from “Porgy and Bess”, the Gershwins’ operatic masterpiece in 1935. “Oklahoma!” (1943), based on Lynn Riggs’s play “Green Grow the Lilacs”, was a project that both Rodgers and Hammerstein had independently of each other been drawn towards. However, when both Lorenz Hart and Jerome Kern declined to co-operate on the piece, it was the beginning of the Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration which lasted for sixteen years and produced eleven shows for the stage, the cinema and for television. Not all of them were successful (“Allegro”, “Me and Juliet” and “Pipe Dream” had relatively short runs) but the partnership’s reputation is remembered for a half-dozen enormous-hit stage shows, namely “Oklahoma!”, “Carousel”, “South Pacific”, “The King and I”, “Flower Drum Song” and “The Sound of Music”, all of which became even bigger, more successful films. If none of them was actually filmic in their treatment of the musical material, at least they are a record of the original stage shows. It is still fairly rare for stage musicals to be filmed, for obvious commercial reasons, so that many classic shows and, even more importantly, great acting and singing performances have been lost once the shows have closed. Most productions up to the late 1960s are but memories, lost in the ether, although since 1970 all Broadway productions have allegedly been recorded on video for the New York theatre archives.

John Wilson and his ad hoc if hand-picked orchestra specialise in giving authentic performances of classic film-musical scores. Last year’s Promenade Concerts season included a tribute to the music of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer films. This year it was Rodgers & Hammerstein and their six stage musicals that were immortalised by Twentieth Century-Fox. Although Rodgers & Hammerstein’s musicals were popular in the theatre before they were filmed, the musical forces of a theatre cannot compare to what film can achieve with sound and music. In this respect the Fox Studio Orchestra added immeasurably to the enjoyment of the scores through brilliant arrangements by orchestrators such as Irwin Kostal, Edward B. Powell, Herbert Spencer, Pete King and Bernard Mayers, under the direction of legendary conductor Alfred Newman, director of music at 20th Century-Fox for twenty years.

In the heyday of Hollywood musicals orchestras could be as big as needed. John Wilson replicates this with his 100-piece orchestra; its members make a brilliant sound and the playing effortlessly reproduces the great output of the Fox Studio Orchestra including the lushness of its string section. Wilson fielded nigh on sixty string-players and they were simply superb. But that’s not all, for he also covered every possibility by including several saxophones, five percussion players, two pianos, two harps, a celesta, guitar, banjo and accordion.

The excerpts were played in chronological order beginning with the Overture and Main Title music to “Oklahoma!” in an arrangement by Adolph Deutsch. Then, recalling Gordon MacRae riding a horse through the cornfields at the beginning of the film, Julian Ovenden sang ‘Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’’. He has a rich, warm-sounding voice that is perfect for this sort of semi-poetic ballad. He was then joined by Sierra Boggess for the duet ‘People Will Say We’re In Love’, famously sung in the film by MacRae and Shirley Jones. Miss Boggess (currently the heroine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Love Never Dies”) has an appealingly sweet voice, beautifully modulated and as clear as a bell. Both singers excelled in this terrific duet which sees Rodgers at his romantic best, while Hammerstein’s poetic yet conversational lyrics are subtle and moving as the two would-be sweethearts try to talk themselves out of love. These two songs were sung in arrangements by Robert Russell Bennett, the celebrated composer, conductor and arranger who was the leading orchestrator of Broadway and Hollywood musicals from the 1920s for some forty years. He won an Academy Award for his scoring of “Oklahoma!”.

“Carousel” (1945) is perhaps best-known for its famous waltz (once the signature tune of the BBC radio programme “Movie-Go-Round”, which used the soundtrack recording). The John Wilson Orchestra reproduces this sound brilliantly. The ‘Carousel Waltz’ replaced the traditional overture medley of themes from the show and introduced the cast and the fairground against which the action is set. It is far from sugar-sweet and is in fact rather dark at times and sinister in its mood, here in an arrangement by Edward B. Powell who also arranged ‘If I Loved You’, a song similar in tone to ‘People Will say We’re In Love’ in which the couple try not to own up to love. Sierra Boggess and Julian Ovenden were again exceptional. Maida Vale Singers and Kim Criswell then gave a rip-roaring version of ‘June Is Bustin’ Out All Over’, arranged by Gus Levene, and Julian Ovenden returned to score another bulls-eye in the ‘Soliloquy’ in which fairground barker Billy Bigelow tries to predict what his newly-conceived son will be like. It gives him a reason to live, an extended monologue of Billy’s internal thoughts.

Maida Vale Singers returned for the songs from “South Pacific” (1949), an ill-judged film by Joshua Logan who had also directed the highly successful stage version. He hated the finished film which was marred by the drenching of the songs with appalling coloured filters, although this did not affect the box-office returns. Kim Criswell brought an almost spiritual feeling to ‘Bali Ha’i’ which Bloody Mary sings to Lieutenant Joe Cable about the mysterious island on the horizon. The men of the Singers essayed the now very politically incorrect ‘There Is Nothing Like a Dame’ with the playful humour in which it was originally intended. Anna-Jane Casey sang ‘I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’ with great feeling, while Rod Gilfry gave us Emile de Becque’s big number, the soaringly romantic ‘This Nearly Was Mine’, and joined Casey for the ‘Twin Soliloquies’ leading into the big waltz number ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ during which there probably wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Powell’s arrangement of the Overture to “The King and I” (1951), a traditional piece that offers a medley of the show’s tunes, such as ‘I Have Dreamed’, ‘Getting to Know You’ (originally written for “South Pacific”), ‘We Kiss In a Shadow’, ‘Hello, Young Lovers’ and ‘Something Wonderful’, in which the orchestra excelled itself. “Flower Drum Song” (1958) was the least successful of the half-dozen shows represented here, but it has one famous song, the proto-feminist ‘I Enjoy Being a Girl’, to which Anna-Jane Casey gave some earnest feminist feeling and then sang ‘Grant Avenue’, a paean of praise to the San Francisco location. Gilfry’s contribution was the romantic ballad ‘You Are Beautiful’, sung with passion and yet subtle charm too.

It is a pity that a concert to mark the anniversary of Oscar Hammerstein’s death should include songs from “The Sound of Music” for which Richard Rodgers wrote both music and lyrics for the film version after Hammerstein had died. ‘I Have Confidence’ was sung by Sierra Boggess with great confidence and her duet with Gilfry on ‘Something Good’ was pleasantly moving, but there are other (better) Hammerstein lyrics such as ‘My Favourite Things’, ‘Do-Re-Mi’, ‘Sixteen Going On Seventeen’ or even ‘Edelweiss’ that are just as charming. However, the concert ended with Kim Criswell looking formidable as she sang ‘Climb Ev’ry Mountain’ with Maida Vale Singers in tow – a good, solid, anthemic end to a marvellous show.

The encore was the title song from “Oklahoma!”, although it would have been more appropriate to have perhaps included something from “State Fair” (1945) which Rodgers & Hammerstein wrote as an original film musical, although it became a stage show later on and coincidentally is enjoying a welcome revival in London at the Trafalgar Studios (until 11 September). How better to end this terrific tribute to the music and lyrics of Rodgers & Hammerstein and the great days of the Fox musicals than with ‘It’s a Grand Night For Singing’.

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