Our story begins in the late 1920s, when two of the most significant events in cinematic and live theatre history would eventually result in one of the greatest periods of artistic collaboration between stage and screen. Released on 6 October 1927, The Jazz Singer , the first full length “talkie”, threw a very heavy dust cover over the cameras of the silent movie era (Gloria Swanson is ringing in my ears: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small!”), while at the same time rehearsals and out-of-town trials for Jerome Kern’s new masterpiece Show Boat were under way, opening on 27 December at the Ziegfeld Theatre, New York City. These two shows paved the way for the development of both the cinema and the Broadway musical, and the “Golden Age” of Hollywood married the two together, producing some of the most spectacular films ever made by the great American picture companies. Including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Paramount Pictures and Columbia Pictures, they formed some of the most perfect relationships between director, composer and actor ever to be recorded on film; Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in particular has maintained an extraordinarily special place in history by signing contracts with some of the greatest singers, dancers, composers, choreographers and orchestrators including Judy Garland, Fred Astaire, Ann Miller, Gene Kelly, Rodgers & Hammerstein, and many, many more.

The John Wilson Orchestra
The John Wilson Orchestra

Over the past several years conductor John Wilson has lovingly rescued and restored many outstanding film scores of the Golden Age of Hollywood that display not only the melodic genius of familiar names like Waxman, Rodgers, Porter, Korngold, Kern and Youmans, but also the inimitable skill of orchestrators like Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Robert Russell Bennett – these men understood all the light and shade of orchestral colouring and texture so intimately that a single bar could lift your spirits or break your heart.

Opening this Bridgewater Hall concert in Manchester with the MGM Jubilee Overture, a glittering collage of toe-tappingly famous tunes, the John Wilson Orchestra launched heart and soul and tap-shoes into a time when happiness was a smile and a song – the mood is exuberant, infectious, impenetrably optimistic and you cannot help but close your eyes and be swept up in swirling Technicolor visions of Dorothy Gale, Lena Lamont and Esther Smith. What followed was one of the finest orchestral and vocal performances I have ever attended; the John Wilson Orchestra are the epitome of ensemble and the masters of musicianship: every bar is tight down to the last semiquaver and bursting with enthusiasm, and there’s no denying that Wilson himself is light of foot on the podium. In addition to this outrageous opening number, the orchestra was graceful and elegant in “Dancing in the Dark” (The Band Wagon), while the “Waltz at Maxim’s” (Gigi) was so disarmingly charming that it was impossible for a performance of such dedication not to leave you smiling.

Joining the orchestra, singers Anna-Jane Casey (ravishing in glamorous green and gold dresses) and Matthew Ford gave tender renditions of those songs that go deep to the heart of anyone who has ever been in love – in particular, “The Girl Next Door” (Athena) and “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man” (Show Boat) were especially beautiful. The pace quickened in comic duets including “How Could You Believe Me When I Said I Love You” (Royal Wedding) and “A Couple of Swells” (Easter Parade), both of which caught me silently mouthing the words. In addition, Casey gave a deliciously sassy performance of “Thanks a Lot, But No Thanks” (It’s Always Fair Weather).

Nothing remains to be said, except that performances of this calibre are the closest thing to perfection that I can imagine; there is no point in singling out any orchestral soloist or section as the John Wilson Orchestra is truly a team effort and everybody wins – there is no weak link in the chain.

This music, so exquisitely crafted, designed for pleasure, hope-raising and misery-quashing, carries with it joy and passion and the message that every man, woman and child has the right to live their lives with a smile on their face and a spring in their step; it has as great a place in the world today as it ever has and the John Wilson Orchestra are now touring the country imparting more than just exciting tunes, but happiness and optimism too.

Hooray for John Wilson, hooray for the magnificent musicians of his orchestra and hooray for Hollywood!

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