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November 8, 2013
UK's John Wilson Orchestra Makes Tinseltown Premiere
Seth MacFarlane sponsors concert celebrating MGM musicals by Jon Burlingame
WESTWOOD, Calif.—British audiences have known for years that John Wilson is a superb conductor and dedicated presenter of classic film music. A thousand Americans finally got the chance to hear, live and in person, what they've been talking about.
On Friday, October 25, an invited audience of Hollywood movers and shakers filled UCLA's Royce Hall to hear the John Wilson Orchestra perform "A Celebration of Classic MGM Film Musicals," a two-hour program of authentically re-created song and score arrangements from the studio known for the finest screen musicals ever produced.
"It's like bringing coals to Newcastle," Wilson quipped to the crowd, which demonstrated its approval with standing ovations, cheers, shouts, whistling and often wild applause throughout the evening. Ninety-seven of Britain's finest musicians, who brought the music to life, were made to feel welcome in Los Angeles.
In addition to Wilson's hand-picked orchestra, the 36-voice Hollywood Film Chorale and four top U.K. vocalists performed – as did America's own Seth MacFarlane, the Family Guy creator and sometime crooner who sponsored the Wilson visit as a splashy way to introduce him to the U.S. (and while the audience wasn't told this, the performance was part of MacFarlane's lavish 40th-birthday celebration, which continued well into the next day for his friends and family).
What was extraordinary about the evening was not simply the thrilling orchestra and choral performances, and the terrific soloists. In fact, this concert marked the first time that nearly perfect reconstructions of Metro's timeless arrangements and orchestrations from such the enduring musicals as An American in Paris, Gigi and Meet Me in St. Louis had been performed live in the United States.
As MacFarlane pointed out in his introduction, virtually all of the original MGM scores were destroyed in 1970 in an ill-advised decision by studio management (led by the notorious James Aubrey, the infamous "smiling cobra" who ran MGM from 1969 to 1973 and who shockingly declared that the studio's assets "had no intrinsic value").
Enter John Wilson. A graduate of the London's Royal College of Music, he was "always interested in vintage popular music," he says. "I've also had an enthusiasm, since my childhood, for the sound of those movies. I thought it would be fun to play some of that music."
Wilson consulted with National Philharmonic conductor Charles Gerhardt (who conducted a now-classic series of film-music LPs for RCA in the 1970s) and began making inquiries about the MGM scores in 2000. All that survived, it appears, were so-called "piano conductor" scores – vastly simplified reductions of the full orchestral scores that had been kept for reference purposes. By this time, the scores were part of the Warner Bros. archives, as Warner had inherited them from Turner Entertainment (which itself had purchased the MGM film library in 1986).
With the conductor scores in hand, endless hours of careful listening to the original film soundtracks, research into other available sources (such as lists of musicians who played on the original films), "a lot of patience and a lot of tea," Wilson says, he was able to reconstruct the original arrangements and orchestrations for MGM films through three decades, from the late 1920s to the late 1950s.
"MGM inadvertently created a series of masterpieces that will be around forever," Wilson explains. "The song and dance routines from those films stand up perfectly on their own. There is a leanness and a swagger to those MGM musical scores that fits the material. They are the most sophisticated settings of those songs ever made. I just want them to be absolutely as they happened in their final form on the soundstages."
Wilson has now restored nearly 200 individual numbers, including three complete film scores (The Wizard of Oz, Singin' in the Rain and High Society; the first two are now being performed live-to-picture by orchestras everywhere).
Wilson's MGM concert (which, in a 2009 performance at London's Royal Albert Hall, is now out on DVD) opened with Johnny Green's 1954 "MGM Jubilee Overture" and included numbers from 16 films. The earliest was the Broadway Melody ballet (1929); the most universally known were probably The Wizard of Oz (1939), An American in Paris (1951) and Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Along the way came classic selections from Girl Crazy (1943), Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), Easter Parade (1948), Summer Stock (1950), Brigadoon (1954), Deep In My Heart (1954), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), It's Always Fair Weather (1955), Kismet (1955), Hit The Deck (1955), High Society (1956), and Gigi (1958).
Eleven of the films featured arrangements by Conrad Salinger (1901-1962), whom longtime MGM music director Green once described as the studio's "star orchestrator... one of the two or three outstanding arranger-orchestrators in the entire field of musical theatre," and whom music historian Christopher Palmer called "the man responsible, more than anyone else, for giving the MGM musicals their unique sound."
"He had a very individual, sophisticated sense of harmony," Wilson says. "It was those very subtle and exclusive touches that he gave to those numbers that set him apart... little touches of instrumentation, like alto flutes and French horns, that gave those pictures a sound world all their own.
"His specialty was that high-class production number, the theatrical presentation of a popular song, or a balletic development of a number. In the hands of Salinger, you could be listening to Debussy or Ravel. He's never going to be a household name, but that doesn't diminish his stature."
Wilson is about to begin a 13-city tour of the U.K. with this program. But, as he said in an interview here the day before the Royce Hall show, "it's your music. It's American music. It just happens to have taken a Brit to restore a lot of this lost music." Added MacFarlane about Wilson: "He created something that I had to be a part of."
©2013 Jon Burlingame
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