If you’ve never heard the John Wilson Orchestra, it’s time to experience pure happiness. Buy their 2016 live album Gershwin in Hollywood — seriously, just do it. Play the first track: a medley arranged by Ray Heindorf for Warner Brothers’ 1945 Gershwin biopic Rhapsody in Blue. One by one the great melodies glide past and you’ll already know them, of course: ‘Swanee’, ‘Embraceable You’, ‘I Got Rhythm’. There’s something different, though, about the way they sound here. The brass swaggers; the strings melt and swoon. It’s a sound that most of us have only ever heard through the crackle of a vintage-movie soundtrack, or on a Capitol-era Sinatra LP. But this is fresh — in fact, it gleams. And then, with the audience still cheering, John Wilson slams his full 66-piece orchestra into the opening salvo of ‘Treat Me Rough’. If, in that instant, you don’t feel that this is the greatest show on earth, there’s probably not much point in reading on.
‘It packs quite a punch, doesn’t it?’ says Wilson. ‘We worked bloody hard to get it like that, and what you hear is what happened on the night.’ Talking to the conductor at the centre of the whole phenomenon is disarming. Audiences sometimes giggle when the dapper figure (his tailcoat was made for him by Fred Astaire’s former tailor) with the stick in his hand turns around, wipes his glasses and addresses them in a soft Geordie accent. And the point that he’s determined to make on this occasion is just how much effort it takes for music to sound this much fun. ‘It takes infinite care,’ he says. ‘You start by getting what you think are the right people together, which is what I did 22 years ago at college, and then keep finding players who really want to do it.’ ‘It’ being the reincarnation, in all its Technicolor glory, of something that had been extinct for decades: a 1940s Hollywood studio orchestra, an opulent fusion of a symphony orchestra and a white-hot big band. And then — crucially — learning to play like one.
‘With the strings, it’s that old-fashioned Russian-Jewish Jascha Heifetz thing,’ he says — refugee musicians from Central and Eastern Europe were at the heart of the Hollywood sound. ‘You’ve got to know how to recreate that. Light music has to be played with total style, high style, or it falls flat. Everybody in the orchestra is a stylist.’ Singers are booked with the same care. Then there’s the music itself: standards from the Great American Songbook, familiar to millions from the arrangements created for movies such as Meet Me in St. Louis and High Society, and reconstructed note by note by Wilson after the New Hollywood of the 1960s and ’70s consigned the original scores to incinerators or landfill. In doing so, he’s put on the concert stage — ‘for the first time,’ he points out — an almost lost 20th-century repertoire comprising some of the greatest popular music ever written. A concert by the John Wilson Orchestra is a triumph of historically informed musical scholarship as rigorous as any period-instrument performance of Monteverdi or Bach.
But boy, you wouldn’t guess. For Wilson, it’s all simply a preliminary to taking this music out on stage and playing the socks off it. ‘All orchestras want to sound good and I’m obsessed with the idea of sound,’ he says. ‘We go out there and we do it — and everybody comes off knackered but exhilarated.’ If the JWO’s sense of joy is unmistakable, to hear this music played with such breathtaking verve is a revelation. A generation has grown up for whom big bands mean tea dances and Glenn Miller tribute acts. ‘This has nothing to do with nostalgia,’ says Wilson. ‘I was in my twenties in the Britpop era. I get nostalgic about Culture Club.’ The JWO hits you with some of the best wind and brass players on the planet, swinging so hard it makes your head spin.
‘That thing of five saxes, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section: it’s like a wall of sound,’ he beams. ‘What’s even better is when you’ve got a band that’s swinging like the clappers, but simmering just under, with a lid on it. Count Basie used to do that: when he finally let it roar, it was fantastic.’ Hearing the JWO at full power leaves you buzzing with the kind of euphoria usually found only towards the bottom of your second martini. It’s no wonder that they’re already generating backstage legends. Is it true that a major US TV and movie star flew the whole JWO out to Los Angeles for a party? ‘People can keep guessing about that.’ That Simon Rattle plays their recordings to the Berlin Philharmonic? ‘We did a concert in Berlin and he played timpani in the encore — then gave a speech afterwards in which he said it was one of the top five concerts he’d been to in his life, including Haitink’s Mahler Third. But then, there’s not a snobbish bone in his body.’
And that’s still the sticking point. The JWO’s Prom this summer will sell out: it always does (they’re playing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! in Robert Russell Bennett’s original 1943 Broadway orchestrations — the first time, Wilson believes, that these have been played live in the UK). Don’t expect to see the JWO winning many industry awards, though. The prejudice in classical music circles that while Schubert songs are high art, ‘You’re Sensational’ and ‘The Man I Love’ are somehow disposable is still doggedly entrenched. In fact, Wilson spends most of his year working with conventional symphony orchestras, lavishing the same love on Bax and Elgar (his Vaughan Williams is transcendent) that he brings to Rodgers and Hart. ‘Proper style isn’t even a period thing,’ he says. ‘It’s about finding the most appropriate sound for the music.’ Yet he remains adamant on one point: that light music is a profoundly serious business.
‘That whole thing of making divisions has never made any sense to me — the idea that if you’re conducting Oklahoma! then you can’t conduct Beethoven. As a kid, no one stood over me saying you shouldn’t listen to Ted Heath. So I went to Newcastle library and borrowed records, and if I liked them, I liked them. There were no boundaries. Gershwin, Eric Coates, Cole Porter: this was always serious music. It needs the best players, and it has to be taken seriously. That’s how I think about my orchestra. We’re deadly serious on stage even if we’re frivolous off. Light music is something I’m never going to give up, because I just adore it.’
Prom 35: John Wilson conducts Oklahoma! is at the Royal Albert Hall on 11 August.