John Wilson is the nerd supremo when it comes to classic Hollywood musicals. And no other person has spent, or is likely to spend, two decades reconstructing movie orchestrations (often from scratch because few records were kept), then present them with such verve and élan at the Royal Albert Hall, with a clutch of the best musicians and singers in the business.

He’s put together nearly a dozen of these Proms since his first association in 2002 but says none has been “so complex and as rewarding to unravel as George Gershwin’s music”. It’s that clichéd labour of love, “involving months of research, endless rummaging in dusty archival boxes and hour after hour of analysis of original movie soundtracks”. But so worth it.

Here Wilson presented nearly 20 numbers, either by both Gershwin brothers, songwriter/composer George and lyricist Ira, or the latter in collaboration with others. (Ira outlived George by half a century.) As ever, Wilson tested his captive audience by programming timeless classics alongside tunes we’ve likely never heard of from obscure films.  

The Prom was deftly structured with the Rhapsody in Blue Overture offering a taster menu of the Gershwins’ accomplishments. Then a grab-bag of songs from Girl Crazy and An American in Paris, before he ended the first half on the closing ballet sequence from Shall We Dance. If you’re steeped in the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers RKO movies of the 1930s – as I once was – you might agree that their 1937 movie is almost on level pegging with their 1935 classic Top Hat, so it was intriguing to concentrate on the score in isolation from the film images (a chorus line of Ginger looky-likeys on a gleaming art deco dancefloor).

The Maida Vale Singers sauntered on sporadically and were fine but – in a departure from previous years – John Wilson had streamlined his line-up of star vocalists to just a trio of top-notch singers, with whom he’s worked many times before.

Matthew Ford is a bit of a smoothy, a big-band pro with a caressing, old-romantic timbre. The ravishing Louise Dearman (who swapped a cream and gold frock for vermilion at the interval) was sassy throughout and offered the most authentic Broadway tone of the three – fab on Treat Me Rough and But Not for Me. Ever-dishy Julian Ovenden has a good set of lungs on him and powered through I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise with a stunning sustained final note; but even his charisma couldn’t inject much charm into In Our United State from the forgotten Give a Girl a Break.  

Julian Ovenden performs with John Wilson and the John Wilson Orchestra (Copyright: BBC/Chris Christodoulou)

John Wilson is a stylish showman, but contained, precise, and has the air of a conjuror, eager to enthral with the unexpected or unknown. Of course he can even surprise and delight with the familiar. He climaxed on An American in Paris, a startlingly rich orchestration that allowed his musicians to shine. 

If the Gershwin Prom lacked one ballsy showstopper to make the spirit soar, a sensual soak it did deliver. Ninety minutes of top-class music.

Watch the John Wilson Orchestra perform Gershwin


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