John Wilson and his hand-picked orchestra provided the evening’s entertainment for this August bank holiday at the Royal Albert Hall with the Hollywood Rhapsody Prom. With no less that 108 musicians, the “golden age” of Hollywood was brought back to life in this annual Proms tradition. For this programme, Wilson had decided not to base it around songs, but to throw the spotlight back towards the orchestra and the great movie composers – quite right too. In fact, the Movie Theme Song Medley, sung by Matthew Ford and Jane Monheit, felt rather out of context with the rest of the concert – not that it wasn’t good. The bulk of the programme showcased the works of Steiner, Korngold and Hermann amongst other Hollywood orchestral greats from the 20th century.

Percussionists from the John Wilson Orchestra © Chris Christodoulou
Percussionists from the John Wilson Orchestra
© Chris Christodoulou

Prom 59 opened with the most appropriate piece possible – Alfred Newman’s 20th Century Fox Fanfare. The space above the stage was filled with smoke before the piece started, to allow the searchlights of the famous title visuals to be replicated on stage and add an extra dramatic edge to the fanfare. This explosive piece led into Street Scene from How to Marry a Millionaire, where the theme in the strings led to a sumptuous trumpet solo by Michael Lovatt. The music built to its climactic moment where the main them, having been handed around all the sections of the orchestra, is played in unison accompanied by a loud cymbal crash.

The John Wilson Orchestra know how to turn a concert into a show, and at most points of the evening a particular group of musicians became the focus of attention. The percussion section were an essential cog in the mechanics of the music throughout the concert. In Confetti from the film Forever, Darling, they play a crucial part in the score, heavy in tubular bells and snare drum. But not as crucial as in Scott Bradley’s Tom and Jerry at MGM, where they fired a gunshot, smashed plates and crashed cups in water. They even “woofed”, and made comical screams, bringing the score to life. The end of the piece followed with two percussionists playing cat and mouse, with one chasing the other off stage. This was a brilliant, cartoonish performance and deservedly received huge applause with shouts of delight from the audience. Before playing the next piece, Wilson mockingly collapsed back on his conductor’s podium, before tirelessly going on to conduct Miklós Rózsa’s Ben-Hur Suite.

The zeal of the string players was brought to life in Bernard Herrmann’s Suite for Strings from Hitchock’s Psycho. The haunting violin melody, full of angst, was passed through the different strings to the cellos and became more ferocious before a silence cuts in an the double basses play against suspensions in the strings followed by the famous “stabbing” chords. When the audience applauded, John Wilson made a gesture of stabbing the lead violinist in jest.

A moving rendition of Raskin’s Suite from the film Laura led to an emotional trombone solo by Gordon Campbell. In competition on an emotional level was Russian soprano Venera Gimadieva’s Proms debut singing Salammbô’s Aria by Herrmann, ending with a spine-chilling high D. I only wish that this had been the final point of the first half. Korngold’s Suite from The Adventures of Robin Hood was fantastic, but just not quite as fantastic as the preceding aria. The same problem arose at the end of the concert, where Rózsa’s Ben-Hur Suite would have been better placed before Bradley’s Tom and Jerry at MGM. Not that they were bad performances at all. The professionalism and understanding of film music from each and every musician on stage was key to the effect created by the John Wilson Orchestra.

A relentlessly energetic encore of Franz Waxman’s The Ride of the Cossaks from Taras Bulbawas performed after much applause. As a bank holiday evening of light entertainment, this was certainly a winner. Classical music for film is too often dismissed as light music, but there was no doubt that in this concert John Wilson and his orchestra brought film music to the concert hall with an air of sophistication and highlighted just how great a genre it is, under the bracket of classical music, whilst still having fun.