John Wilson Orchestra

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The John Wilson Orchestra was formed by British orchestral conductor John Wilson in 1994. It is a symphonic orchestra that includes a big jazz band. It performs the original arrangements of MGM musicals and the works of Rodgers and Hammerstein. The orchestra has performed annually in the BBC Proms summer festival since 2009.

Focus and configuration of the John Wilson Orchestra[edit]

The John Wilson Orchestra has been acclaimed for showing how "authentic period performance" extends to screen musicals.[1]

In an interview with Rebecca Franks for the BBC Music Magazine prior to the 2010 Proms season John Wilson explained how the specific make-up of the orchestra reflects this purpose:

The orchestra’s been together a good 15 years and its make-up is very specific. It’s modelled on the old contract movie orchestras in America. And that's basically the combination of a dance-band brass, rhythm and saxophone section, so four trumpets, four trombones, five saxes who all double, and a rhythm section, who are all very specific specialists in this style. And then on top of that you have a woodwind and French horn section.

But I think the key thing is getting the right string players. It has to be a very high octane, high gloss, soloist sort of player. The string sound isn’t blended down, it’s blended up. You play up to the best. It’s a very in-your-face, expensive sort of string sound and it takes a lot of playing. You have to have the best players, but we're spoilt in this country for terrific orchestral performers.[2]

BBC Prom Concerts[edit]

The BBC Proms Concerts are a celebrated annual summer series in London's Royal Albert Hall. These have established the unique role of the John Wilson Orchestra in reviving original arrangements and studio playing styles of classic film and theatre musicals.

John Wilson is the man whose keen ears have reconstructed orchestrations thought lost to us for good and whose amazing orchestra has been custom made to deliver the kind of playing that takes you way beyond make-believe. "Technicolour for the ears?" You’d better believe it.[3]

To date, the John Wilson Orchestra have performed six Proms at the Royal Albert Hall. Their work has reached a wide television audience via the BBC, who televise a few Proms each season.

A Celebration of Classic MGM Film Musicals (BBC Prom 22, 2009)[edit]

In 2009 the John Wilson Orchestra played their debut Prom, A Celebration of MGM Film Musicals. John Wilson's restored arrangements and the performance both received critical acclaim:

Imagine the soundtracks of your best beloved MGM musicals after an auditory steam-clean; better yet, imagine being there in the moment of recreation and hearing the crack MGM Symphony put through its paces, a saturation of swooning strings, mellow trombones, saxes, and a bevy of gleaming trumpets, their extravagant vibrato lending the sound an expensive sheen.[4]

The soloists were Sarah Fox, Thomas Allen, Kim Criswell, Curtis Stigers and Seth MacFarlane.

The BBC released a DVD of the concert. This concert was also revived for a national tour of Britain in November 2010.

Composers and works featured[edit]

The evening paid tribute to, among others:

A Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein (BBC Proms, 2010)[edit]

This project grew out of an invitation by Proms controller Roger Wright for John Wilson to do a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of lyricist Oscar Hammerstein's death. As the John Wilson Orchestra specialises in film music, Wilson decided to revive the original film orchestrations. "Every single piece has been newly originated, edited and reconstructed. At least a third of the music we had to put together from scratch."[5]

Most of what we’re doing hasn’t been played in concert since the original film recording sessions. We’re doing the film versions of The King and I, South Pacific, Oklahoma, Flower Drum Song, Carousel, The Sound of Music – mainly this time the films were produced by 20th Century Fox, not MGM, but it’s that same sumptuous, expensive sound, which is perfect for the Royal Albert Hall.[6]

The choir was the Maida Vale Singers and the international star soloists included Julian Ovenden, Sierra Boggess, Kim Criswell, Anna-Jane Casey and Rod Gilfry.

In an interview for the CD Release for A Celebration of Rodgers and Hammerstein Wilson remarked that recording the music for the concert and CD was the hardest music he and the orchestra ever had to play.[7]

Arrangers of original film versions[edit]

As in the MGM film musicals Prom, this concert featured John Wilson's reconstructions of the following arrangers' original film score versions: Robert Russell Bennett, Adolph Deutsch, Edward B. Powell, Gus Levene, Bernard Mayers, Pete King, Irwin Kostal and Herbert W. Spencer.[8]

Hooray for Hollywood (BBC Prom 59, 2011)[edit]

This was another televised concert from films made between 1935 and 1969, taking the audience through the birth of movie musicals to the last of the musicals made using the old studio format. Styles ranged from romantic to brash, and moods from elegiac to inspirational.

Virtuoso performances by the international soloists and orchestra re-created interpretations by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Julie Andrews and Doris Day. Highlights included the title songs from 42nd Street (Annalene Beechey), Strike Up the Band (Caroline O'Connor), and Top Hat (Matthew Ford). Other outstanding numbers were "A Fine Romance" and "Secret Love" (Clare Teal), "Can't Help Singing" (Sarah Fox), "Jolly Holiday" (Mary Poppins, sung by Beechey)[9] and "Put On Your Sunday Clothes" (Stuart Matthew Price). Operatic tenor Charles Castronovo interpreted "Serenade" (The Student Prince) and the duet "One Hand, One Heart" (West Side Story) with soprano Sarah Fox. Caroline O'Connor performed "The Man That Got Away" (A Star Is Born), and led the ensemble in "There's No Business Like Show Business".

As with the previous proms, the Maida Vale Singers backed the vocalists and performed songs such as "Sit Down, You're Rockin' the Boat".[10]

My Fair Lady[edit]

In 2012 the BBC brought back the John Wilson Orchestra for two proms. The first was a complete reconstruction of Lerner & Loewes musical My Fair Lady. This reunited many vocalists familiar from featuring with the orchestra in previous proms.

This was the first of John Wilson Orchestra's proms not to be broadcast on television though it had been recorded and aired on BBC Radio 3.[11]

The Broadway Sound[edit]

The second Prom for the John Wilson Orchestra in 2012 was devoted to Broadway's best musicals. This was a tribute not just to the composers of Broadway's golden age from the 1920s to the 60s but also to the arrangers and orchestrators who created the rich orchestral textures.[12]

The authentic sound of Broadway was revived in the ballet sequences from Richard Rodgers's On Your Toes and Leonard Bernstein's On the Town, featuring the brass and woodwind sections. Contrast was provided by romantic songs from Frank Loesser's The Most Happy Fella, a ballad from Rodgers's Allegro and a comic routine delivered by a quartet from the Maida Vale Singers, from Jerry Bock's Fiorello. Seth MacFarlane and Anna-Jane Casey performed a medley from Guys and Dolls. Other star vocalists were Rodney Earl Clarke, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Sierra Boggess and Julian Ovenden.[13]

Hollywood Rhapsody[edit]

This was the John Wilson Orchestra's Prom (broadcast on radio and TV) in 2013. It focused almost exclusively on the orchestra itself (rather than vocalists) with performances by the 100+ strong orchestra of scores from The Big Country, Ben-Hur, Casablanca, Psycho, etc., as well as "Tom and Jerry at MGM".

2010 British Tour[edit]

During November, the John Wilson Orchestra reunited with soloists Sir Thomas Allen, Kim Criswell, Sarah Fox, Seth MacFarlane and Curtis Stigers for a British national tour of A Celebration of Classic MGM Musicals, visiting Manchester,Nottingham, Gateshead, Glasgow, Birmingham, and Bournemouth.[14]


  • A Celebration of Classic MGM Film Musicals (the MGM evening from the 2009 Proms, released July 2010; ASIN B003QHVKRQ)


  • This Is The John Wilson Orchestra
  • Orchestral Jazz (featuring Richard Rodney Bennett; CDSA 6800)
  • Shall We Dance?: Big Band Arrangements of Geraldo (CDSA 6806)
  • Soft Lights and Sweet Music: Classic Arrangements by Angela Morley (CDSA 6803)
  • Moonlight Becomes You (Paul Weston arrangements; CDSA 6808)
  • Film and Television Music of Angela Morley (CDSA 6807)
  • Dance Date (ASIN B00082MXSC)
  • Alone Together (with Gary Williams; CDSA 6809)
  • That's Entertainmeint: A Celebration of the MGM Film Musical (EMI Classics, 2011)
  • Rodgers & Hammerstein at the Movies (EMI Classics, 2012)


External links[edit]