Alison Kerr

THERE are five-star concerts, and then there are five-star concerts which make the hairs on the back of your neck get up and dance, which pin you to the edge of your seat, tingle your spine and plant gigantic, goofy grins on your face. You look around, and everyone else is beaming their best loony smiles too. The first concert by The John Wilson Orchestra in Glasgow, back in December 2010, unquestionably falls into the latter category.

There was a blizzard going on outside and a somewhat reduced – though suitably well-padded – audience inside.

But, in true Hollywood style, the show went on. And what a show. That night offered many of us, even lifelong devotees of concerts of music from Hollywood musicals, our first chance to hear excerpts from the greatest musicals of them all – the MGM output – being played exactly as they had been played on the classic movie soundtracks, and exactly as they had been etched in our brains since we first saw such iconic films as Singin’ in the Rain, Meet Me in St Louis, High Society, Brigadoon and Gigi.

Not only were the punters in a state of euphoria as the charismatic Wilson conducted the band through the numbers, including – thrillingly – the incidental music leading in to and out of the familiar arrangements of The Trolley Song, Singin’ in the Rain et al, but the musicians and singers seemed to be having an absolute ball; it was probably the happiest orchestra this reviewer had ever seen.

All of which is worth mentioning because The John Wilson Orchestra is returning to Glasgow – as it does most Decembers now – with a programme that revisits the MGM theme. And nobody is more excited than 45-year-old Wilson himself. In the midst of a packed calendar, which mostly comprises conducting programmes of classical music – notably for the BBC SSO, which recently appointed him new associate guest conductor – Wilson regards his movie musicals work as a delicious treat, and the annual Proms appearance and winter tour as a joyful reunion with longstanding musician pals.

Clearly champing at the bit to get his new show on the road, Wilson explains why he is particularly looking forward to the 2017 tour: “This year, for the first time, I have a 16-piece professional choir as well as the leading singers so we can do loads of those big production numbers that we couldn’t do before – On The Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe from The Harvey Girls, Shakin’ the Blues Away from Love Me Or Leave Me, and Steppin’ Out With My Baby from Easter Parade which we did before but without a chorus. I’m excited – double excited in fact. I’ve been waiting 15 years to play some of this stuff!”

Indeed, while it may have seemed as if The John Wilson Orchestra exploded into being when it was the sensation of the 2009 Proms – when it performed the programme which then toured the country in 2010 – it was, in fact, a debut that had been a long time in the making. Gateshead-born Wilson, who studied at London’s Royal College of Music, had spent years hand-picking musicians for his eventual full orchestra, the make-up of which mirrors that of the famous MGM studio orchestra – a symphony orchestra with a swinging big band at its heart. Wilson says: “I used to play jazz piano gigs in bars and if I was playing in a trio then I’d meet a lot of my future colleagues; it’s turned out to have served a purpose”.

During the early years when the John Wilson Orchestra would play weddings and bar mitzvahs, Wilson was also busy assembling a repertoire. And that’s where he faced a challenge – because the original scores for many of the greatest MGM musicals were lost in the 1970s, ironically around the time that the studio’s glorious back catalogue of musical magic was being celebrated in its That’s Entertainment series of compilation movies.

The scores were among files and documents that ended up as landfill for a parking lot in Culver City – which meant that the only way for Wilson to recreate the scores exactly as they were heard in the films was to piece them together from watching the films over and over and painstakingly reconstruct the arrangements we know and love.

In the process, Wilson has helped to bring greater and long-overdue recognition to the likes of the orchestrator and background music composer Conrad Salinger, who worked on Singin’ in the Rain, High Society and Brigadoon. Wilson is particularly drawn to Salinger’s contributions – why?

“Because he took such trouble with his arrangements and they cost him such a lot of effort – but you can hear the trouble that went into them, they're so richly detailed. And he has such an alluring harmonic sense. It's such an elusive sort of glamour that he brings to these things. It's never tawdry – it's always beautifully, perfectly judged and because it's never overkill, they come up fresh as paint now.”

Following the spectacular success of that now-legendary 2009 Prom, The John Wilson Orchestra has become a fixture at that prestigious event – most recently performing the entire score of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! there and memorably bringing the music from the Tom & Jerry cartoons to life with characteristic panache and humour. The orchestra has even taken the MGM music back to its birthplace, with a concert at the Hollywood Bowl. “That whole LA trip is just a blur,” admits Wilson, “and that was one of the greatest nights of my life.”

The band has conducted annual tours in the month before Christmas every year since 2010, and celebrated some of the greatest composers who operated in Hollywood, but the MGM-themed shows and numbers have a particular magic to them – and Wilson sounds like a kid in a sweetie shop as he reels off some of the new additions to the repertoire that will be heard in Glasgow.

“We’ve got stuff from Annie Get Your Gun that’s never been performed before. We’ll get to play more things from Singin’ in the Rain, like Good Morning which is great fun, as we reconstructed the whole film for a performance at Festival Hall a few years ago. We’ve got numbers from Show Boat, The Bandwagon, Brigadoon, and we have a tribute to Debbie Reynolds – the opening of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and music from Athena, which starred Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and Victor Moore.

“Believe it or not, it’s a 1954 musical about bodybuilding! Martin and Blane – who were responsible for the songs in Meet Me in St Louis – wrote the music, but otherwise it’s just terrible! At one point, Vic Damone actually looks p****d off that he’s in the film...”

And after presenting this tantalising verbal trailer for the forthcoming attractions, Wilson gleefully sums it all up, saying: “This is the single most ambitious thing we’ve ever taken on the road – all the biggest MGM numbers, and I’m the circus master!” All that’s missing is the lion’s roar – but then again, The John Wilson Orchestra is always full of surprises …

The John Wilson Orchestra – A Celebration of the MGM Film Musicals, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Wednesday December 6.


Following the success of The Wizard of Oz, in 1939, studio chief Louis B Mayer decided to set up a musical unit at MGM with Oz producer Arthur Freed (the man who had ensured that Over the Rainbow be reinstated to the film, after it had been cut) at the helm.

And it is to Arthur Freed, who first came to Hollywood as a songwriter, that much of the credit for the great run of definitive MGM musicals is due. John Wilson puts the unrivalled greatness and splendour of the MGM musicals down to the fact that "MGM had a sort of repertory company, in the shape of the Freed Unit. Their musicals were the best ever made because Freed had this extraordinary gift of assembling talent.”

Freed was responsible for bringing the director Vincente Minnelli to MGM. Minnelli’s first film, Cabin in the Sky (1943), was an all-black musical and featured many jazz greats. He went on to make such much-loved classics as Meet Me in St Louis (1944), An American in Paris (1951), The Bandwagon (1953) and Gigi (1958).

One of the first stars that Freed signed was Gene Kelly – with whom he visited Scotland in 1953, to soak up the atmosphere and get ideas for sets for the Minnelli-directed musical Brigadoon (1954). Kelly and Stanley Donen, of course, jointly directed the musical regarded as the greatest of them all, Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – the songs for which Freed had penned decades earlier with composer Nacio Herb Brown, and had used in numerous earlier MGM musicals.

John Wilson says: “Arthur Freed had a very loyal group of craftsmen that he used time and time again – directors Vincente Minnelli and Charles Walters, composer/arrangers Conrad Salinger, Johnny Green and Andre Previn, choreographers Gene Kelly and Hermes Pan, costume designer Helen Rose. He had the same people doing the same job year in year out – they really knew what they were doing. And as a result, every aspect of these films was absolutely first class.”