According to recording studio legend, Frank Sinatra wielded an immediate influence over his musicians which meant that, like Toscanini or Furtwängler, his mere presence in a room would revolutionise the way they played. Affable and easy on the silver screen, his obsessive perfectionism in private was renowned (and noted) by all who worked with him. Hearing a selection of Sinatra’s repertoire played by the John Wilson Orchestra at the Proms, many of the songs arranged by Nelson Riddle, “the man responsible for initially transforming the overall Sinatra sound” (David Benedict, Prom programme note), we were able to see how much there was for Frank to obsess over. Each song has a warm and glossy atmosphere, indelibly associated with the glamourous world of 1950s and 1960s Hollywood: it feels comfortable, wonderfully easy music to listen to. But behind each swelling chord, there’s a great deal of structural detail; behind each sparkling cymbal, a controlled touch of finesse. John Wilson’s discipline and passion for this music shone out in a crystal-clear rendition of each track, lovingly detailed but never relaxing into the self-indulgence of nostalgia.

Seth MacFarlane © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Seth MacFarlane
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The big name of the night was Seth MacFarlane, well known to younger generations through the phenomenally successful, bitingly sarcastic cartoon Family Guy, and also becoming an increasingly familiar face at the Proms (this was MacFarlane’s third appearance to date in the Nation’s Village Hall). It became increasingly clear through the evening that MacFarlane treasures Sinatra’s music, and takes it seriously. Each song was delivered with a focused emotional conviction which brought out its unique moods and colours. MacFarlane’s tenor bore at least a passing resemblance to Sinatra as he began each line, although he often seemed to lack the lung capacity to get to the end of his phrases. When not singing, MacFarlane’s bopping dad-dancing, as he gazed enthusiastically at the orchestra, was surprisingly endearing: combined with his faintly restrained delivery, this air of slight gaucheness somehow made his performance more real music-making, less the shiny glamour parade we might have expected. MacFarlane’s gentle stage presence is as disarming and relaxing as a bedside manner: nicely unimposing, backed up with plenty of quiet charisma.  

Jamie Parker, while creditably competent throughout, didn’t seem to inhabit the songs emotionally to quite the same extent as MacFarlane, nor did Parker’s tenor have the same breadth of tone. Despite his confident singing and scrupulous American intonation, there remained something vaguely insincere about Parker’s performance: he seemed very much an actor singing his selection, rather than an artist using those songs to personally communicate with his audience from the heart. Poor microphone technique also let Parker down, some notes virtually lost altogether as he ambled aimlessly about the stage with a roving mic, though this improved markedly whenever he stood still, hands in pockets and singing at a stand with better discipline and firmer vocal presence.

Claire Martin sang with evident enjoyment in her smoky-toned soprano, duetting with MacFarlane on Richard Rodgers’ This Can’t Be Love and then taking centre stage for The Folks Who Live on the Hill, recorded by Peggy Lee. Long notes, however, were also a stretch for Martin to sustain convincingly: all three singers seemed to find themselves a little underpowered whenever facing a more substantially challenging note. Nevertheless, all the songs came across with significant style, charm, and a pronounced sense of cool, none more so than No-One Ever Tells You, sung brilliantly by MacFarlane and surely the coolest tune of the evening.

The John Wilson Orchestra sounded fabulous. Nelson Riddle’s orchestral arrangement of Three Piano Preludes by George Gershwin had wonderful depth, like a landscape painting with intricate detail in the foreground, plenty happening in the middle ground and rising mountains of sound in the distance. The Overture to High Society was a joyous, glitzy, whirling showstopper. John Wilson conjured waltzing rhythms across the board, from slow, jazzily meditative moments to passages of frenetic pace, handling his orchestra with friendly camaraderie and razor-sharp control. The music lilted along purposefully, sweeping us up in its sighs of emotion and rolling us towards big finish after big finish: the applause and curtain calls continued long into the night.