Prom 67 was an animated and very popular late-afternoon matinee with the John Wilson Orchestra, celebrating the endless and multifarious talents of Leonard Bernstein 25 years after his death. ‘Serious’ music abounds at the Proms  and this concert provided a delicious contrast and a treat for audience and musicians alike.

Louise Dearman © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Louise Dearman
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

“Leonard Bernstein – Stage and Screen” offered the audience the opportunity to explore not only Bernstein's most well-known music for the stage – West Side Story, his reimagining of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet in New York City – but also lesser-known film and stage writing, such as Trouble in Tahiti and Peter Pan. The John Wilson Orchestra seems made for this music: John Wilson first conducted West Side Story at the age of 16 and it remains a cornerstone of his repertoire. His affinity with Bernstein's variety, daring orchestration, dynamic contrasts, idiosyncratic harmonies, command of rhythm, and sophistication is evident from the way he directs his orchestra with a lively precision and split-second timing. Combine this with lush strings, resplendent brass and punchy percussion, and Bernstein's music is magically brought to life with vivid colour, foot-tapping energy, and evident enjoyment on the part of conductor, orchestra, and chorus.

Scarlett Strallen © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Scarlett Strallen
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou
Saving West Side Story for the second half was a cunning piece of programming and made it all the more exciting, and poignant, when it came. The jagged, jazzy overture “Dance at the Gym” sets the scene of the opposing gangs and is where Tony first meets Maria. This was followed by the eponymous aria, elegantly and tenderly presented by Julian Ovenden. The simplicity of his approach ensured this familiar song did not sound hackneyed, and its closing moments were accompanied by shimmering strings, deftly nuanced by Wilson. Then came the comedic and sarcastic “Gee, Officer Krupke”, performed with all the chutzpah of traditional musical theatre.

The concert included numbers from On the Town (1944), 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (1976) and Wonderful Town (1953). Louise Dearman was the stand out performer for me, with her sassy attitude and brightly-toned voice, whether wittily ticking off “A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man” from Wonderful Town or suggestively reminding the audience that “I Can Cook, Too” from On The Town. Scarlett Strallen combined warmth and glittering coloratura in Cunégonde’s showpiece “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, while mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer brought humour and panache to “I Am Easily Assimilated”, also from Candide.

The first half closed with the symphonic suite from On the Waterfront (1954). This was the only film score Bernstein wrote and its symphonic scheme enabled him to turn it into this darkly-lit suite, the film's portrayal of violence an undercurrent which runs through the entire piece with dramatic interjections from brass and percussion. Opening with a haunting horn solo, this was an arresting and intense performance, proof that the John Wilson Orchestra can handle "serious" music with aplomb and musical understanding.

John Wilson © BBC | Chris Christodoulou
John Wilson
© BBC | Chris Christodoulou

The concert closed with the radiantly optimistic “Make Our Garden Grow” from Candide (a flop by Broadway standards with only 73 performances in its first season). In this ensemble piece for soloists, orchestra and chorus, Bernstein brings together all the musical strands of his sumptuous score to create a splendid, crowd-pleasing finale. At one point, the orchestra drops out leaving just the singers and chorus singing in rich unaccompanied harmony. This was a rousing close to a thoroughly enjoyable tribute to Bernstein’s creativity. And of course no performance of Bernstein's music would be complete without a rendition of “America” from West Side Story, which provided a sparkling encore.