Review
Wednesday 29th
August 2012

The John Wilson Orchestra | The Broadway Sound | 5 Star Review *****

The Broadway Sound performances at the BBC Proms take tunes that we know well, and remind us how lucky we are to have them, writes Laura Thompson.

On the evidence of this Prom, it is impossible to doubt that the Broadway show tune is one of the finest inventions of the 20th century. Proof came not just from one’s ears, but also one’s eyes.

As much as the sound, it was the perpetual movement of the John Wilson Orchestra – violin bows wielded like weapons, horns and woodwind rising in turn to perform their little curlicues of magic – that revealed the symphonic complexity of music such as Rodgers and Hart’s Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, which brought the first act to a glorious climax.

The miracle of these Proms, which John Wilson has been conducting since 2009, is that they take tunes that we know almost too well, and remind us how damn lucky we are to have them.

Men such as George Gershwin and Jerome Kern lived in an artistic climate where democratisation and civilisation reached a perfect concord, where to be popular was also to be great.

That moment has gone forever, but we can still savour its fruits. The modern sensibility seems supremely out of tune with the Broadway spirit: so adult, so good-natured, so keen for perfection. Yet there were plenty of enraptured young people at the Royal Albert Hall, perhaps contemplating the ritual burning of their collection of hip-hop.

For this we must thank John Wilson, disseminator of joy, who strides on stage looking like a fantastically charismatic junior doctor, and whose love for this music means that he understands precisely the blend of relaxation and stringency that it requires.

His programme contains some cleverly-chosen curiosities: for example Little Tin Box, a Jerry Bock song about expenses fiddling, is delivered with delicate relish by members of the Maida Vale Singers.

Meanwhile this gorgeous choir lends backing to more familiar material, such as Ol’ Man River from Show Boat (the first great musical, written 85 years ago), which was rendered all the more moving for the elegant restraint shown by bass-baritone Rodney Earl Clarke.

Later, Clarke and Elizabeth Llewellyn slipped into sublimity with Gershwin’s Bess, You is my Woman Now. Another exquisite pairing, actor-singer Julian Ovenden and American soprano Sierra Boggess, performed Tonight from West Side Story with a sincerity that brought this overfamiliar song to intense new life.

The other performers, Seth MacFarlane and Anna-Jane Casey, were equally splendid. For two hours, watching this show, life was a wonderful thing. Enough said.

For this we must thank John Wilson, disseminator of joy, who strides on stage looking like a fantastically charismatic junior doctor, and whose love for this music means that he understands precisely the blend of relaxation and stringency that it requires.

His programme contains some cleverly-chosen curiosities: for example Little Tin Box, a Jerry Bock song about expenses fiddling, is delivered with delicate relish by members of the Maida Vale Singers.

Meanwhile this gorgeous choir lends backing to more familiar material, such as Ol’ Man River from Show Boat (the first great musical, written 85 years ago), which was rendered all the more moving for the elegant restraint shown by bass-baritone Rodney Earl Clarke.

Later, Clarke and Elizabeth Llewellyn slipped into sublimity with Gershwin’s Bess, You is my Woman Now. Another exquisite pairing, actor-singer Julian Ovenden and American soprano Sierra Boggess, performed Tonight from West Side Story with a sincerity that brought this overfamiliar song to intense new life.

The other performers, Seth MacFarlane and Anna-Jane Casey, were equally splendid. For two hours, watching this show, life was a wonderful thing. Enough said.