Well this is the one I’ve been looking forward to all year – singing with The John Wilson Orchestra and being a very small cog in a VERY large ensemble, recreating the timeless musicals of Rogers and Hammerstein at the BBC Proms. The orchestra is 100 strong (where DID they get that budget?) and has some the best players from London Orchestras, the BBC big band and the world of Jazz. Last year I was lucky enough to be asked by Christopher Dee, director of The Maida Vale Singers to sing in a choir for the MGM Musicals Prom. All of the original scores and band parts from the MGM studios had been put into the landfill for the golf course and were lost forever under the tarmac…..Ever since he was a child, John Wilson had a dream that he would transcribe the music by ear and bring that music back to life. It was an extraordinary achievement and the atmosphere among the audience and musicians alike was wonderful. Every time a player would get up and do a solo the other musicians who weren’t playing would applaud – It was one of those concerts I would have sung for free – please don’t tell the fixers though! The BBCTV broadcast was watched by three and a half million people and it’s already been repeated twice.
I will always remember the first rehearsal we had with the John Wilson Orchestra. The singers listened awestruck as they played the MGM Overture. The energy and virtuosity of the players was so uplifting. We’re mostly a cynical bunch, professional musicians, but sometimes we’re reminded why we came into the business – certainly not for the pay! This was one such occasion. So when Chris asked me to sing in the Rogers and Hammerstein Prom, I had no hesitation in accepting.
We had our first rehearsal at the Warehouse Studios near Waterloo and as the piano reduction hadn’t arrived, the rehearsal pianist only had a full score – she did a valiant job of score-reading the music which was written for 100 players. Half way through the rehearsal John Wilson arrived – he’d been delayed with some last minute transposition (changing the key for one of the solo numbers). Suddenly the music came alive as he injected his innate understanding and feel for the style into the accompaniment.
John wanted a shimmering, fast vibrato from the ladies on Bali Ha’I – “no choral evensong – a full vibby tone” he requested in his broad Geordie accent. He told us that the most important thing for the up-tempo numbers was for us to sing like a big band – with incision and a ping to the front of every note. (His orchestra contains a fabulous rhythm section at it’s heart and even a few members of the BBC Big Band).
The next night we had a rehearsal with the full band and soloists at LSO St Luke’s Church. This is a church which the LSO converted so they would have a large space to rehearse and it has developed into a venue for rehearsals and live concerts for all types of music. Here’s a picture I took of some of the orchestra from the gallery (I couldn’t get them all in!) The orchestra sounded great, of course, and it was a thrill to put our singing to their lush accompaniment. John Wilson was a very long way away so it was a bit difficult to see him. We weren’t amplified either, so it’s always difficult for the conductor to judge if we’re singing absolutely on the beat because of the physical delay in the sound reaching their ears.
On Saturday we had our run through in the Royal Albert Hall. We were called in the morning as time is of a premium when Prom season is in full flow. We finished at 1pm so that the stage management could clear the stage and set up for the 3pm, afternoon Prom concert by I Fagiolini and the Britten Sinfonia performing Monteverdi. Later that evening the Rotterdam Philharmonic would perform Mahler and Wagner – a busy weekend!
We started a run-through promptly at 10am and behind the scenes the rehearsal was used for the broadcast team to set microphone levels and camera angles. We carried on rehearsing regardless and there were some funny moments – one where John asked the saxaphone section to play a bit louder – he joked (imagine the Newcastle accent) “I would have written that tune for you to play on clarinets but I know that you’s all have sold your clarinets to buy a car”.
It was our first chance to hear the great cast of soloists. In the previous evening’s rehearsal they were the other side of the orchestra so we hadn’t heard them properly.
Another lovely moment was when the soloists were singing the lovely ballad Somewhere in my Youth or Childhood from The Sound of Music and they reached an instrumental interlude. The Baritone, Rod Gilfry asked Sierra Boggess, who was singing Maria, “is there somebody I should ask for permission to marry you?” There was a pause from the Sierra and John Wilson shouted over his shoulder “Andrew Lloyd Webber”.
I must run now and catch the train up to London to get to the Albert Hall for the show – It’s a sell out and I know that many people will listen live on Radio 3 and listening again on the BBC iPlayer in the coming week. The TV broadcast is next Saturday.
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