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I’ve started writing this on the train home to Brighton – whilst on the packed 52 bus to Victoria, I asked a promenader if they’d enjoyed the show and they replied: “It couldn’t have been better”.
I first sang with John Wilson and his fabulous Orchestra two years ago in a celebration of the MGM musicals and again, last year, in a concert of Rogers and Hammerstein musicals. John has an amazing passion for the music from the golden age of musical films. For the first concert he got permission from MGM to recreate from ear the musical scores that had been buried under the golf course at the studios. An amazing feat, as the orchestra had a hundred players – not to mention the lavish choir parts and solo vocals.
This year was no exception. John quipped in an interview with the Telegraph that the sellotape bill to stick together the band parts had come to over £1700! We were a little underpowered this year with a 98-piece orchestra.
Our first rehearsal was at the BBC studios at Maida Vale in London and we started off with three hours with Christopher Dee – the chorus master of the Maida Vale Singers. The excellent BBC rehearsal pianist had no piano reduction or even just any chords to play from. We had no clue as to what we would hear before we sang, just endless bars of rests to count. After the dinner break, John Wilson and the soloists arrived and he sat at the grand piano and brought the whole score to life.
He told us that this choir rehearsal, once a year, was the only time he played in public and apologized. Unbelievable to us, as he plays the scores without any music rather like some famous, matinee-idol pianist from one of the MGM films!
John loves us to sing with a fast vibrato – a shimmering vibrato he describes it – and we did our best to create the sound he wanted. It’s interesting to do, as it’s not a sound that’s very fashionable in today’s singing world. John reminded us that his orchestra plays with a fast vibrato and if we could shimmer like them then we’d be ‘like peas in a pod’.
All through the rehearsals he exhorted the players and singers to go further with the style and tone and assured us that if we did, then we couldn’t go wrong – and somehow, because he seems so unshakingly confident that we can deliver, everybody just does!
At the beginning of the second rehearsal, Chris told us that once we had shown John the sound he wanted, we should save our voices as we had such a lot of music to get through. John looked up from the piano and turned to us, cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted in his broad Geordie accent “RUBBISH!”
He demands 100% all the time from his players.
In the Strike Up The Band medley we had to shout ‘Hooray’ and although we did it in the correct place we were a bit too short and sharp. John told us he wanted it longer, which we did the next time, and he smiled wryly and said, “trim about a quarter of an inch off that”
Here are some other great phrases that John quipped during the rehearsals (try to imagine his gentle Geordie lilt):
“In your head, think about the beautiful sound you’re already going to make, so that what comes out of your mouth is absolutely ravishing.”
“Ignore the bar lines – they’re only the boxes the music comes in – that’s what Thomas Beecham said and he was right!”
“I’ll give you two bars in: 1 – 2 – absolutely in tempo and I won’t budge – then we can’t go wrong.”
Towards the end of the rehearsal the choreographer asked us if we were willing to learn Sit Down We’re Rocking The Boat from memory – and add movement. Everybody looked scared! We’d only just sight-read the music and the thought of having to sing it from Memory AND do the moves and possibly make a fool of ourselves on BBC television seemed rather too daunting. Thank heavens for MP3 downloads – I found the Stubby Kaye version from the Frank Sinatra film version and popped it onto my iPod so that I could listen to it on the drive to Blackheath Concert Hall for the tutti rehearsal.
Once again, the choir sat excitedly as some of the best musicians in London whirled their way through the overture – breathtaking stuff! We were rather squashed into this rehearsal space and had the usual problems of distance, sight-lines and no fold-back speakers to hear the soloist’s cues for us to come in. We had to trust that things would sort themselves out in the Royal Albert Hall, where there would be more space and the three rows of choir would be raised up.
While the orchestra was rehearsing the solo numbers the choir went to the bar (only to rehearse honest) to run through the moves. It was incredibly hot and people were all talking at once, as they were so worried about doing the wrong moves. Chris did an excellent job of herding us into some sort of movement order and when the choreographer popped back we were much more on top of things.
John called us back into the main hall and we had to quickly sing it through with the moves in front of the orchestra – a nightmare! With the pressure I was all over the place. I knew I’d have to do it through on my own many more times to fix it into my brain.
We finished on the dot at 9pm (MU rules!) although we hadn’t managed to sing two of the encore numbers. They would have to wait until the rehearsal on the next morning – the day of the concert.
After a long drive home and an early start I arrived for the rehearsal. There were already people queuing for the promenade £5 standing tickets – one couple had slept in sleeping bags, they were so keen to get a front row spot.
I dropped off my dress in the dressing room and rushed onstage. This was the first time we’d been able to hear the soloists properly and they sounded great.
We were all given hygienically sealed, red kazoos with the BBC3 logo stamped on them. (I had actually made my kazoo debut at the proms a few years earlier in a number from Chicken Run in the Film Music Prom). In the concert it didn’t stop me momentarily thinking that mine wasn’t working, when I absent mindedly blew into it, instead of singing through it, during the Mary Popping Penguin Medley.
It was also the first time we’d seen or heard the New York Italian tenor, Charles Castronovo who sang the Serenade from The Student Prince (originally sung in the film by Mario Lanza) He was ably accompanied by the Maida Vale Male Singers.
He had a fabulous voice and I sneaked back during the tea break to hear him sing One Heart from West Side Story with Sarah Fox – in the concert you could hear a pin drop at the end of that number. He certainly had the matinee idol looks and amused the choir as he gave all the pretty girls in the audience a wink. Here he is in action:
Near to the end of the rehearsal, John Wilson called to the violins “Who’s playing an Ab? – you’re officially fired!” Everybody laughed and that quip summed up his rehearsal style. Humorous but with ears like a hawk. No detail went unnoticed.
This year, John had chosen a great mixture of excellent Big Band singers, Mathew Ford and Clare Teal; Annalene Beechey and Caroline O’Connor who are well known for Musical Theatre, along with the more traditional Operatic Tenor and Soprano voices of Castranova and Fox.
For me, on the night, the highlight of the show was Caroline O Connor singing Judy Garland’s number The Man Who Got Away from her comeback musical A Star Is Born. Stunning singing, accompanied by searing characterization and a physical presence that was breathtaking.
The real star of the show was, of course, the orchestra. Each section packed with virtuosic playing. Howard McGill gave beautiful solos on both Saxophone and Clarinet and Mike Lovett shone once again on Trumpet. My old percussion friends, Sam Walton (who had the epic task of playing the Maracas in Cork on Reich’s Music for 18 concert) and Owen Gunnell (from my Portrait of a Woman Arundel Festival Concert) were manfully scurrying from one instrument to another at the back of the stage.
Ivan Hewett from The Telegraph gave the show a five star review. He summed it up perfectly:
“Lots of factors conspired in that comfortable feeling, one of which is the way Wilson embodies an old matinee-idol archetype. He’s just the right slender shape for tails, with a beat that’s as shapely as a chorus girl’s ankle. More than that, the orchestra resurrects something we all remember and love but haven’t heard in a long while, in all its pristine splendor: the sound of the great studio orchestras.”
I was so pleased that he picked out one of our Maida Vale Singers who stepped out to sing the solo on Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat, along with the choir, for special mention.
“There was Nigel Richards, making a brief but sassy appearance in Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat, with the chorus (the excellent Maida Vale Singers) in support.” (Read the full review)
It seemed that once again, we had got away with it, despite my heart beating out on a stalk as we stood to do our ‘dance’ number. Nigel turned to us during the rapturous applause from the completely sold-out Royal Albert Hall audience and whispered “Has it started yet?” He’d been so nervous it had all flown by like a dream.
You can listen again to the concert on Radio 3 for a week and on Saturday 3rd September the concert will be broadcast on BBC2 TV.
I had a great time and certainly hope to see you all at the Royal Albert Hall next year!
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