Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen

Having paid tribute to Frank Sinatra in a Late-Night Prom earlier in the
season, the second of the orchestra’s two performances this year celebrated
the genius of Leonard Bernstein; and,Wilson made certain that we appreciated
the composer’s full stylistic and expressivediversity in a sweeping sequence
from Bernstein’s scores for the stage and the screen, which ranged from
operetta to symphonic modernism, from satirical parody to heartfelt sincerity,
and included both the big hits and less well-known gems.

From the first — the opening scene of the ‘sailors-on-shore-leave’
musical On the Town — to the last — the closing chorus from
Candide — Wilsonconducted with a rare combination of relaxed
understatement, which coaxed things along with an easy swing, and exactitude
which ensured that no detail was overlooked and the players cohered
meticulously. (This was a blend of fastidiousness and fluency which was
certainly missing from Marin Alsop’s all-Brahms programme with the Orchestra
of the Age of Enlightenment on the previous Tuesday evening.) The John Wilson
Orchestra brings together some of the finest orchestral players in the UKand
— clearly relishing being ‘let off the leash’ — they played with
stylish panache: a wonderfully glossy and rich string sound, characterful
woodwind solos and beautifully refined horns, dance-band glitz from the brass,
the hypnotic swing of saxophones and rhythm sectioncombined to produce a
technicolour kaleidoscope of shifting instrumental colours. As Wilson himself
has remarked of West Side Story, ‘Every single dynamic indication,
every accent, every marking in the score has a clear dramatic indication’,
and it showed.

‘I Feel Like I’m Not Out of Bed Yet’ (On the Town) lazily
unwound, as Robert Winslade-Anderson’s well-supported bass-baritone boomed
into the auditorium, a sonorous ‘wake-up call’ for his fellow dock-workers
(Jack North and Mark Meadows) who were swiftly joined by Gabey (Julian
Ovenden), Chip (Stuart Matthew Price) and Ozzie (Matthew Seadon-Young) for an
up-beat, boisterous rendition of ‘New York, New York’. There’s been a lot
of debate during this Proms season about the amplification of singers, but in
this case the microphones demonstrated the professionalism of both the
technicians and practitioners. In ‘Lonely Town’ we had an early taste of
Ovenden’s beguiling lyricism, beautiful phrasing and expressive warmth, and
of the stunning sheen of the JWO’s string section, while the Maida Vale
singers made the first of their superb contributions during the evening, in the
following ‘Pas de deux’. The instrumentalists showed us that they could do
audacity just as well as quietude, in Louise Dearman’s sassy ‘I Can Cook,
Too’. Dearman, who played Lois Lane/Bianca in Kiss Me Kate at last
year’s Proms with the John Wilson Orchestra, employs quite a wide vibrato but
she uses it expressively and she made a real impact, communicating with

‘The President Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March’ (from 1600
Avenue, Bernstein’s collaboration with Alan Jay Lerner, to
mark the bicentenary of the US Declaration of Independence) bounced with sharp
irony and wit: Mark Meadows’s presidential proclamations were strong and
well-centred, Wilson managed the rubatos and changes of tempo with
superlative expertise (and Jonathan Aasgaard’s cello solo was a highlight of
the slow instrumental section), whilethe chorus were sparkling and animated as
the guests enjoying the exotic culinary delights. Lucy Schaufer’s
operatically trained mezzo was full-toned and expressive in ‘Take Care of
this House’ but she struggled with the intonation in the closing phrases.
Scarlett Strallen also had trouble with the tuning of ‘A Little Bit in
Love’ (Wonderful Town) and while the bass pizzicatos
generated a lovely swaying swing, there was some tension in Strallen’s
phrasing. Dearman’s ‘A Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man’ showed no nerves
or restraint though, as she reflected with wry candour and incredulity on her
amazing talent for romantic misadventure and failure. Here, through the silky
wistfulness of low woodwind complemented by the fullness and warmth of the
strings, Wilson showed how instrumental colour can bring depth to character and
context. And, Dearman showed Ruth’s true heart, avoiding kitsch, delivering
the speaking lines infectiously and finding both humour and pathos in the sung

The symphonic suite from Bernstein’s only film score, On the
, ended the first half and formed the emotional centre of the
evening. If other orchestras have found the Hall’s acoustic problematic this
season, with string sections in particular struggling to bring life to their
sound and lift to their phrasing, the John Wilson Orchestra encountered no such
difficulties: here, there was no muffled articulation or heaviness — all was
incisive, crystalline and immediate. String tremolos shimmered rapidly, solos
for woodwind and horns spoke soulfully, brass and percussion rasped and rapped
grittily, intimating the violent undercurrents of the score. Wilson
demonstrated consummate appreciation of both the power of the details and the
impact of the whole.

A sequence from Candide made a compelling start to the
post-interval selection. The overture, taken at a breath-taking tempo, was
simply stunning. Wilson whirled up an astonishing vitality, relishing
Bernstein’s fantastic orchestration, with the percussion in particular
enhancing the rhythmic energy. The central episode was wonderfully tender
before Wilson gradually injected excitement, raising the temperature towards
the dashing close. Schaufer (Old Woman) enjoyed the parodyof ‘I Am Easily
Assimilated’, switching with delightfully phony ‘authenticity’ between
the German, French, Spanish and Russian lyrics,while the JWO added a sharp kick
to the tango — the tambourine rattle, piquant duet for piccolo and
coranglais, trombone glissandi and pesante strings ratcheting
up the Hispanic caricature. After such burlesque, Ovenden’s ‘Nothing More
Than This’ welled with sincerity; who could have thought that disillusion,
anger and bitterness could sound this beautiful?

If she had been a little nervous during the first half, Strallen showed no
tentativeness in a show-stopping ‘Glitter and Be Gay’. I saw Strallen shine
as Cunegonde in the Menier Chocolate Factory’s esteemed 2013 production of
Candide, and she had no problem communicating Cunegonde’s
rapaciousness and self-belief in this much larger venue. Her high notes truly
glittered, like the starry riches that she craves, ringing with piercing
clarity and accuracy like the dazzling jewels that Cunegonde swipes from the
chandelier. One might have thought that Strallen’s coloratura extravaganza
would be the highlight of the night, but Ovenden’s ‘Maria’ (West Side
) made it a close-run thing, the voice strong and wonderfully
‘old-fashioned’ with its honeyed shades and sweetness.

Matthew Seadon-Young (Action), David Seadon-Young (Diesel), Stuart Matthew
Price (Arab) and Jack North (Baby John) brought back some brashness and brawn
in ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’; Schaufer (Dinah) was joined by Sarah Ryan, Price
and Meadows (Jazz trio) in ‘Island Magic’ ( Trouble in Tahiti);
and, Strallen demonstrated a softer loveliness in ‘Dream With Me’
(Peter Pan). The closing number ‘Make Our Garden Grow’
(Candide) brought all the soloists (supplemented by Patrick Smyth as
Maximilian) together with the stirring voices of the Maida Vale Chorus … and
raised the rafters. There was just one encore, ‘America’, but one felt that
the audience would happily have listened all night.

It takes playing of the highest calibre to make this music sound so
‘simple’. This Prom was a joy from start to finish. The only question was
who was enjoying themselves the most — the toe-tapping audience, or the
performers who clearly had a ball.

Claire Seymour

Performers and programme:

John Wilson — conductor, Louise Dearman — vocalist, Lucy Schaufer
— mezzo-soprano, Scarlett Strallen — vocalist (Proms debut artist), Julian
Ovenden — vocalist, Maida Vale Singers, John Wilson Orchestra. Royal Albert
Hall, London, Saturday 5th September 2015.

On the Town — Opening scene: ‘I Feel Like I’m Not Out
of Bed Yet’/’New York, New York’, ‘Lonely Town’/’Pas de deux’,
‘I Can Cook, Too’; 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue — ‘The President
Jefferson Sunday Luncheon Party March’, ‘Take Care of This House’;
Wonderful Town — ‘A Little Bit in Love’, ‘A Hundred Easy Ways
to Lose a Man’; On the Waterfront — symphonic suite;
Candide — overture, ‘Nothing More than This’, ‘Glitter and Be
Gay’, ‘Dance at the Gym’; West Side Story — Maria, ‘Gee,
Officer Krupke’;Trouble in Tahiti — ‘Island Magic’; Peter
— ‘Dream with Me’; Candide — ‘Make our Garden Grow’

Click here to listen to the broadcast of this concert.

image_description=Leonard Bernstein
product_title=Prom 67: Bernstein — Stage and Screen
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Above: Leonard Bernstein