26 May

John Wilson Celebrates the Glorious MGM Musicals at the Proms

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For over 2 hours the Royal Albert Hall became the MGM Concert Hall in Culver City where John Wilson and his incredible hand picked 92 piece orchestra took us through all those wonderful arrangements of Conrad Salinger, LLoyd 'Skip' Martin, Adolph Deustch, Lennie Hayton etc, from the classic MGM Musicals.

The hall was packed and the atmosphere was 'electric' and when John gave the down beat for the MGM Jubilee Overture we all knew we were in for a very special evening. The Orchestra sounded out of this world with marvellous string playing, wonderful swinging brass and reeds and they really did produce that unique 'MGM Sound'. It really felt the musicians on stage were enjoying themselves as much as the audience and to be able to be part of this orchestra, to play these classic arrangements , so painstakingly reconstructed by John, was indeed an honour.

The handpicked soloists - Kim Criswell, Sarah Fox, Sir Thomas Allen, Curtis Stigers and Seth MacFarlane and the Maida Vale Singers really pulled the stops out in their numbers and just could not believe their luck in having such a marvellous orchestra backing them . It was indeed Technicolor for the Ears!

The Prom was carried 'live ' on BBC Radio 3, BBC 2 and the BBC HD Channel. Unfortunately the BBC 2 television transmission had Clive Anderson as compere with Debbie Wiseman and neither acquitted themselves very well I am afraid. They had not researched the subject thoroughly and they got many of their facts wrong. It really should have been done by Edward Seckerson who used to present the much lamented 'Stage and Screen' on Radio 3. The Radio 3 introductions were handled better by Petroc Trelawny.

The BBC TV transmission had an audience of over 2 million - exactly double the Proms Opening Night. It is interesting to read the concert reviews on the BBC Proms Website. Most Proms have 5 or 6 comments - the MGM Prom had 69 with over 95% asking "why can't we have more of this type of music programme?" A lot of correspondents wanted to know when it was going to be repeated and also if it was coming out on DVD and Blu-Ray.

I think the BBC may have opened a 'Pandora's Box' with this Prom after so many years completely ignoring Film and Light Music. I feel sure we will be seeing much more of the John Wilson Orchestra in the future after the outstanding success of this Prom, and he is to be congratulated for all his hard work in reconstructing theses scores that have been now enjoyed by millions.

Hamish MacLean


MGM Jubilee Overture (Singin’ In The Rain, I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Broadway Melody, The Last Time I Saw Paris, Temptation, Be My Love, The Trolley Song, On The Atchison Topeka And The Santa Fe, The Donkey Serenade and Over The Rainbow)
The Trolley Song (from "Meet Me In St Louis")
Over The Rainbow ("The Wizard of Oz")
Steppin’ Out With My Baby ("Easter Parade")
The Heather On The Hill ("Brigadoon")
Wonderful. Wonderful Day & Barn Dance ("Seven Brides For Seven Brothers")
Stranger In Paradise ("Kismet")
More Than You Know ("Hit The Deck")
I Got Rhythm ("Girl Crazy")
Main Title & Love Is Here To Stay ("An American In Paris")
Get Happy ("Summer Stock" – in UK "If You Feel Like Singing")
Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, You’re Sensational & Well Did You Evah ("High Society")
Title Song ("Gigi")
One Kiss & Lover Come Back To Me ("Deep In My Heart")
I Like Myself ("It’s Always Fair Weather")
Singin’ In The Rain & Broadway Melody Ballet ("Singin’ In The Rain")
That’s Entertainment ("The Band Wagon")
Boy What Love Has Done To Me ("Girl Crazy")(heard on Radio-3 but not included in television broadcast)

John Wilson’s glorious MGM Musicals Promenade Concert on 1 August generated the biggest postbag ‘Journal Into Melody’ has received for many years. The following is an edited representative sample of the comments: apologies if your message is missing, simply because it repeats what others have written.

I wish to offer my congratulations on the concert given by John Wilson and his Orchestra, and singers. Over the years my wife and I have enjoyed many Promenade concerts, but we cannot recall any one which gave us more sheer pleasure. In our younger days Light Orchestral music formed a prominent and much appreciated part of the BBC’s output. It was a rare day indeed when, for instance, some composition by Eric Coates was not played over the air. Even into the television era such programmes as Robert Farnon’s Sunday afternoon concerts, and Roger Moffat introducing The BBC Northern Dance Orchestra (with Sheila Buxton) were highlights of the television week. The MGM Musicals Prom reaffirmed that such music, performed with enthusiasm by musicians who really appreciated the works, provides superb entertainment. It is music which deserves to be lifted out of the pit of neglect into which it has been consigned. Although most of the Corporation’s house orchestras have long gone, in The BBC Concert Orchestra there is still a magnificent interpreter of such music. (It is ironic that the Concert Orchestra’s recently released CDs of the orchestral works of Leroy Anderson carry the Radio 3 logo, when Radio 3 never broadcasts anything by Anderson!) The success of John Wilson’s concert suggests that it might be time to incorporate more Light Music into the Prom’s schedule, or even, in the weeks preceding the Proms, revive the Light Music Festivals which for so many summers brought delight to the airwaves. Some influential people seem to believe that the genre of beautifully crafted Light Music which flourished during the middle decades of the Twentieth Century has appeal only to those of us who are were contemporary with it. Even if that belief were true, it would not in itself be reason for our tastes to be ignored. But it is manifestly not true; the youthful enthusiasm of John Wilson, and the exuberance of his musicians, demonstrates that. HORACE BENNETT, England.

Great Prom, although I thought there were too many vocals in the second half. What a fantastic orchestra - pity about presenter Clive Anderson! ALAN BUNTING, Scotland.

I wish to thank all concerned for the magnificent Prom concert on Saturday devoted to Hollywood musicals. This was the kind of enterprise that only the BBC could afford to mount, and it was worth every penny. The conductor John Wilson deserves a knighthood! His orchestra appeared to enjoy playing the wonderful arrangements as much as the audience enjoyed hearing them without the distraction of visuals. It was a chance to pay tribute to the skills of those MGM orchestrators rather than the actual composers of the melodies. I loved it and only wish I had been in the Albert Hall.


Hope all RFS members caught the John Wilson Prom - wasn't it magical?! JEFF HALL, England.

We're still reeling from that superb John Wilson Prom on Saturday evening. Yes some of the singers were a bit naff and as for Clive Anderson - yuck!!! It seems to have gone down very well; on a late night phone-in on London's LBC on Saturday evening the first caller was waxing lyrical about it, and even Paul Barnes thought it top-class. I would like to know the programme viewing figures. ALBERT KILLMAN, England.

Let me still tell you how excited I was to listen on the first day of August via internet radio to the fantastic BBC Proms Concert with John Wilson conducting the reconstructed MGM musical scores! Probably the greatest concert I have ever heard. My deepest respect to this young highly talented conductor and his incredible and excellent job. Let us hope one day this big event will be available on DVD. This concert was also broadcast last week (5 September) on the German radio channel Bayern 4 Klassik from Munich. As far I know the reaction of many listeners was enthusiastic! ALEXANDER SCHATTE, Berlin, Germany.

 I enjoyed the latest magazine which arrived yesterday, especially the little bit about John Wilson. What a terrific conductor. I speak for many when I say his MGM Prom was just brilliant and I love his new CD of John Ireland's Music also! MARTIN MILLER, England.

Predictably the musical snobs could not resist complaining about ‘their’ Proms being taken over by something likely to appeal to a far greater audience. One woman wrote to the Radio Times saying that Sir Henry Wood and Sir Malcolm Sargent would be turning in their graves. Clearly she was ignorant of the history of the Proms. Sir Henry Wood envisaged an annual music festival that would appeal to the masses, and the music performed in its early years did just that. It is only in recent decades that the BBC has turned it into an elitist event, with its new commissions clearly intended to foster admiration from non-musical souls who wouldn’t recognise a melody if it jumped up and bit them.

Happily other correspondents to Radio Times put that stupid woman firmly in her place. As well as reminding her of Sir Henry’s original vision, one gentleman who knew Sir Malcolm Sargent, stated categorically that he would have loved the MGM Prom.

 Sir Michael Parkinson also contributed a wonderful article to Radio Times. Under the headline "Cloth-eared zealots who complain are to be pitied", Sir Michael wrote:

The Proms, which I often presented, are one of the great cultural achievements of the BBC. The Prom concert featuring music from 75 years of MGM musicals (1 August BBC2, Radio 3) made me feel, for the first time in a long while, that all was well with the world. John Wilson, the conductor, not only reconstructed the scores of the original orchestral parts destroyed when MGM’s library was demolished, but assembled a big, big band to create a sound that can only be described as glorious. Morecambe and Wise, Tommy Cooper and Les Dawson were regularly on telly the last time I felt as happy watching the box.

There have been sniffy comments from the usual cloth-eared zealots who complain about "dumbing down". They are to be pitied if they don’t understand that the music from the Great American Songbook will last as long as any in the classical canon; and if people extol the genius of Alfred Brendel while dismissing Oscar Peterson, then they know nothing.

It was best illustrated many years ago on Parkinson when we brought together Yehudi Menuhin and Stéphane Grappelli. Menuhin was fascinated by the other man’s talent for improvisation, Grappelli in awe of the other’s reputation. "He is a maestro, I am a fiddle player," he said. They rehearsed for the first time and afterwards Grappelli’s face was creased in a joyous grin. "Good rehearsal?" we asked. "Three minutes into Lady Be Good, tell me, who is the maestro?" he said. It was the start of a working relationship that produced a few records and a long friendship between two men from different worlds, but who shared a genius for making music.

There have been other Prom concerts featuring film music, but why not make a celebration of an incomparable 20th-century art form — which is what the Great American Songbook is — a regular part of the season? It’s too important to be ignored, as it is nowadays, by all of TV and most of radio, including those BBC stations that ought to know better. I speak, of course, of Radio 2, which should be the guardian and promoter of the golden treasury that John Wilson unforgettably presented to us at the Proms. I have a better idea: make John Wilson head of music at Radio 2.

This feature appeared in the December 2009 edition of ‘Journal Into Melody’.

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About Geoff 123
Geoff Leonard was born in Bristol. He spent much of his working career in banking but became an independent record producer in the early nineties, specialising in the works of John Barry and British TV theme compilations.
He also wrote liner notes for many soundtrack albums, including those by John Barry, Roy Budd, Ron Grainer, Maurice Jarre and Johnny Harris. He co-wrote two biographies of John Barry in 1998 and 2008, and is currently working on a biography of singer, actor, producer Adam Faith.
He joined the Internet Movie Data-base (www.imdb.com) as a data-manager in 2001 and looked after biographies, composers and the music-department, amongst other tasks. He retired after nine years loyal service in order to continue writing.