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Leonard Bernstein
08 Sep 2015

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

The John Wilson Orchestra have been annual summer visitors to the Royal Albert Hall since their Proms debut in 2009 and, with their seductive blend of technical precision, buoyant glitziness and relaxed insouciance, their concerts have become a hugely anticipated fixture and a sure highlight of the Promenade season.

Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Leonard Bernstein


Having paid tribute to Frank Sinatra in a Late-Night Prom earlier in the season, the second of the orchestra’s two performances this year celebrated the genius of Leonard Bernstein; and,Wilson made certain that we appreciated the composer’s full stylistic and expressivediversity in a sweeping sequence from Bernstein’s scores for the stage and the screen, which ranged from operetta to symphonic modernism, from satirical parody to heartfelt sincerity, and included both the big hits and less well-known gems.

From the first — the opening scene of the ‘sailors-on-shore-leave’ musical On the Town — to the last — the closing chorus from Candide — Wilsonconducted with a rare combination of relaxed understatement, which coaxed things along with an easy swing, and exactitude which ensured that no detail was overlooked and the players cohered meticulously. (This was a blend of fastidiousness and fluency which was certainly missing from Marin Alsop’s all-Brahms programme with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on the previous Tuesday evening.) The John Wilson Orchestra brings together some of the finest orchestral players in the UKand — clearly relishing being ‘let off the leash’ — they played with stylish panache: a wonderfully glossy and rich string sound, characterful woodwind solos and beautifully refined horns, dance-band glitz from the brass, the hypnotic swing of saxophones and rhythm sectioncombined to produce a technicolour kaleidoscope of shifting instrumental colours. As Wilson himself has remarked of West Side Story, ‘Every single dynamic indication, every accent, every marking in the score has a clear dramatic indication’, and it showed.

‘I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet’ (On the Town) lazily unwound, as Robert Winslade-Anderson’s well-supported bass-baritone boomed into the auditorium, a sonorous ‘wake-up call’ for his fellow dock-workers (Jack North and Mark Meadows) who were swiftly joined by Gabey (Julian Ovenden), Chip (Stuart Matthew Price) and Ozzie (Matthew Seadon-Young) for an up-beat, boisterous rendition of ‘New York, New York’. There’s been a lot of debate during this Proms season about the amplification of singers, but in this case the microphones demonstrated the professionalism of both the technicians and practitioners. In ‘Lonely Town’ we had an early taste of Ovenden’s beguiling lyricism, beautiful phrasing and expressive warmth, and of the stunning sheen of the JWO’s string section, while the Maida Vale singers made the first of their superb contributions during the evening, in the following ‘Pas de deux’. The instrumentalists showed us that they could do audacity just as well as quietude, in Louise Dearman’s sassy ‘I Can Cook, Too’. Dearman, who played Lois Lane/Bianca in Kiss Me Kate at last year’s Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra, employs quite a wide vibrato but she uses it expressively and she made a real impact, communicating with directness.

‘The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March’ (from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Bernstein’s collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, to mark the bicentenary of the US Declaration of Independence) bounced with sharp irony and wit: Mark Meadows’s presidential proclamations were strong and well-centred, Wilson managed the rubatos and changes of tempo with superlative expertise (and Jonathan Aasgaard’s cello solo was a highlight of the slow instrumental section), whilethe chorus were sparkling and animated as the guests enjoying the exotic culinary delights. Lucy Schaufer’s operatically trained mezzo was full-toned and expressive in ‘Take Care of this House’ but she struggled with the intonation in the closing phrases. Scarlett Strallen also had trouble with the tuning of ‘A Little Bit in Love’ (Wonderful Town) and while the bass pizzicatos generated a lovely swaying swing, there was some tension in Strallen’s phrasing. Dearman’s ‘A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ showed no nerves or restraint though, as she reflected with wry candour and incredulity on her amazing talent for romantic misadventure and failure. Here, through the silky wistfulness of low woodwind complemented by the fullness and warmth of the strings, Wilson showed how instrumental colour can bring depth to character and context. And, Dearman showed Ruth’s true heart, avoiding kitsch, delivering the speaking lines infectiously and finding both humour and pathos in the sung phrases.

The symphonic suite from Bernstein’s only film score, On the Waterfront, ended the first half and formed the emotional centre of the evening. If other orchestras have found the Hall’s acoustic problematic this season, with string sections in particular struggling to bring life to their sound and lift to their phrasing, the John Wilson Orchestra encountered no such difficulties: here, there was no muffled articulation or heaviness — all was incisive, crystalline and immediate. String tremolos shimmered rapidly, solos for woodwind and horns spoke soulfully, brass and percussion rasped and rapped grittily, intimating the violent undercurrents of the score. Wilson demonstrated consummate appreciation of both the power of the details and the impact of the whole.

A sequence from Candide made a compelling start to the post-interval selection. The overture, taken at a breath-taking tempo, was simply stunning. Wilson whirled up an astonishing vitality, relishing Bernstein’s fantastic orchestration, with the percussion in particular enhancing the rhythmic energy. The central episode was wonderfully tender before Wilson gradually injected excitement, raising the temperature towards the dashing close. Schaufer (Old Woman) enjoyed the parodyof ‘I Am Easily Assimilated’, switching with delightfully phony ‘authenticity’ between the German, French, Spanish and Russian lyrics,while the JWO added a sharp kick to the tango — the tambourine rattle, piquant duet for piccolo and coranglais, trombone glissandi and pesante strings ratcheting up the Hispanic caricature. After such burlesque, Ovenden’s ‘Nothing More Than This’ welled with sincerity; who could have thought that disillusion, anger and bitterness could sound this beautiful?

If she had been a little nervous during the first half, Strallen showed no tentativeness in a show-stopping ‘Glitter and Be Gay’. I saw Strallen shine as Cunegonde in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s esteemed 2013 production of Candide, and she had no problem communicating Cunegonde’s rapaciousness and self-belief in this much larger venue. Her high notes truly glittered, like the starry riches that she craves, ringing with piercing clarity and accuracy like the dazzling jewels that Cunegonde swipes from the chandelier. One might have thought that Strallen’s coloratura extravaganza would be the highlight of the night, but Ovenden’s ‘Maria’ (West Side Story) made it a close-run thing, the voice strong and wonderfully ‘old-fashioned’ with its honeyed shades and sweetness.

Matthew Seadon-Young (Action), David Seadon-Young (Diesel), Stuart Matthew Price (Arab) and Jack North (Baby John) brought back some brashness and brawn in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’; Schaufer (Dinah) was joined by Sarah Ryan, Price and Meadows (Jazz trio) in ‘Island Magic’ ( Trouble in Tahiti); and, Strallen demonstrated a softer loveliness in ‘Dream With Me’ (Peter Pan). The closing number ‘Make Our Garden Grow’ (Candide) brought all the soloists (supplemented by Patrick Smyth as Maximilian) together with the stirring voices of the Maida Vale Chorus … and raised the rafters. There was just one encore, ‘America’, but one felt that the audience would happily have listened all night.

It takes playing of the highest calibre to make this music sound so ‘simple’. This Prom was a joy from start to finish. The only question was who was enjoying themselves the most — the toe-tapping audience, or the performers who clearly had a ball.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

John Wilson — conductor, Louise Dearman — vocalist, Lucy Schaufer — mezzo-soprano, Scarlett Strallen — vocalist (Proms debut artist), Julian Ovenden — vocalist, Maida Vale Singers, John Wilson Orchestra. Royal Albert Hall, London, Saturday 5th September 2015.

On the Town — Opening scene: ‘I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet’/’New York, New York’, ‘Lonely Town’/’Pas de deux’, ‘I Can Cook, Too’; 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — ‘The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March’, ‘Take Care of This House’; Wonderful Town — ‘A Little Bit in Love’, ‘A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’; On the Waterfront — symphonic suite; Candide — overture, ‘Nothing More than This’, ‘Glitter and Be Gay’, ‘Dance at the Gym’; West Side Story — Maria, ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’;Trouble in Tahiti — ‘Island Magic’; Peter Pan — ‘Dream with Me’; Candide — ‘Make our Garden Grow’

Click here to listen to the broadcast of this concert.

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