John Wilson Orchestra to Close Belfast Festival

They've sold out venues across the UK playing classics from MGM musicals, now it's time for the Waterfront Hall and the Belfast Festival

‘Technicolour for the ears.’ That’s how one critic on a national newspaper describes the sound made by the John Wilson Orchestra, which comes to the Waterfront Hall on Sunday, November 4, for the closing concert of the 2012 Belfast Festival at Queen’s.

It’s an apt metaphor, for Wilson and his players have carved out a particularly distinctive niche for themselves in recent years, performing film scores from the golden era of the MGM musical to rapturous audiences up and down the UK.

Virtually any decent orchestra can play this music technically, but it takes a special orchestra, Wilson argues, to play it properly, with all the swing, pizzazz and glamour of the crack studio ensembles who made the original soundtrack recordings. The configuration of the JWO, for one thing, is not exactly similar to that of a conventional symphony orchestra.

‘The most obvious difference, I guess,’ offerss Wilson, ‘is that it’s got a dance band in the middle of it. Trumpets, trombones, saxes and a rhythm section come from that old tradition of the American dance band. And then you have a very carefully chosen string section in which there is absolutely zero dead wood. Every single string player has to have a soloistic sort of sound, a certain sort of energy level to the playing.

‘I want it to sound like those old Hollywood studio orchestras, which were full of concertmasters from eastern Europe,’ adds Wilson, referring to the wave of extraordinarily talented, often Jewish musicians who emigrated to America during the Second World War and after, fleeing Nazi persecution. ‘It’s modelled on that.’

The specialised skill-set demanded by Wilson from his players means that auditions for the JWO are, of necessity, scrupulously selective. Such is the extremely high standard of instrumentalists emerging from the UK’s conservatoires and music colleges nowadays, however, that finding individuals of the right calibre is not too difficult.

‘They’re queuing up,’ admits Wilson. ‘But we’ve had the same players for a long time now. I just used to spot players who play in that way. People who loved Heifetz, Michael Rabin, Oscar Shumsky and Louis Kaufman, who really appreciated that style of playing, with a certain amount of ardour and sweep.’

Ardour and sweep are two qualities that certainly characterise the music-making on the JWO’s new CD, an anthology entitled Rodgers and Hammerstein at the Movies, which is already garnering strong reviews from the music critics.

Among other things, the album highlights Wilson’s activities as a resurrection-man for the MGM musical, reconstructing film music by listening to the original soundtrack, a process made necessary because many of the original scores were thrown out by MGM itself in the 1960s. Whatever was the company thinking of, I wonder, in trash-canning such valuable examples of the cinematic heritage?

Wilson is surprisingly matter-of-fact about what looks in retrospect like an act of brainless cultural vandalism. ‘They never foresaw that the films themselves would have a future beyond their first release,’ he explains calmly. ‘Even the films were left neglected, the actual celluloid rotting in archives. Who was going to be interested in the manuscript paper the music was written on?

‘They knew that it was quality, but I’m not sure that they foresaw its durability. And they certainly had no idea that what they were creating was art. They just saw it as well-crafted entertainment.’

John Wilson


Wilson is in no doubt whatsoever that the best of the MGM musical scores are indeed works of art, comparable in value with any other music being written at the period. And he has special words of praise for those who, frequently in an unsung capacity, fleshed out the basic musical sketches of composers into fully instrumented pieces of music.

‘I think they were orchestrators of genius. Conrad Salinger was probably the greatest of them all, he studied with Paul Dukas. The staff arrangers at MGM spent 40 or 50 years doing it, there’s nothing they don’t know about making an orchestra sound well. They turned out work which is the envy of the world.’

Although Wilson’s own orchestra was formed as long ago as 1994, it’s only relatively recently that it has rocketed to international prominence, and begun packing the crowds in at its regular concerts. How does he account for this sudden, unexpected surge in the JWO’s popularity?

‘Telly!’ he answers, unhesitatingly. He means, specifically, the exposure that the orchestra has had in recent seasons from BBC relays of its Proms performances. ‘We’d been playing together continuously for 15 years, and then we did the MGM Prom, and three and a half million people watched it. That’s a lot of concert-halls!’ he adds, laconically.

Underpinning the recent rise in interest in Wilson’s orchestra and its activities is the sheer musical quality of the repertoire it has become indivisibly associated with. ‘The sort of light music I do,’ he says, ‘is pretty venerable. It’s what we call "golden age" stuff.

‘Some people are nostalgic about it, because it reminds them of when they were dancing in their youth, and whoever they were in love with. I’m not nostalgic about it, because it was all written before I was born. I just take it for what it is.

‘The best of Richard Rodgers, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern and Irving Berlin is the great popular music of the last century. And it was also a time when to be popular could also mean to be great. It’s in the great traditions of the lighter end of music, from Johann Strauss and Lehár onwards. It’s all cut from a high-grade cloth, and musicians can tell straight away that it’s something good, it’s classy.’

That classiness will undoubtedly be apparent in Sunday evening’s Waterfront performance, if the reactions of audiences during the JWO’s ongoing nationwide tour are anything to go by. ‘They’ve gone crackers!’ Wilson enthuses. ‘It’s been sold out from the top of the country to the bottom. And they’ve been on their feet at the end of every concert.

‘I just couldn’t get offstage at the Festival Hall in London last night. The commitment of the players is really extraordinary. To do the same thing every night for a fortnight and keep upping the ante, they haven’t flagged once. But then we never play anything that we don’t believe in.’

With the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein classics such as 'Oklahoma', 'The King and I', 'South Pacific', 'Carousel' and 'The Sound of Music' on the menu, the stage is set for Wilson and his superlative musicians to bring the curtain down on Belfast Festival 2012 in rousing, unforgettable fashion.

The John Wilson Orchestra play the Waterfront Hall on Sunday, November 4. The Ulster Bank Belfast Festival at Queen's continues until November 4.