Among the novelties of each Proms season – world premieres, new commissions, unusual concert programmes – are landmarks whose yearly return helps anchor the festival, allowing audiences to build an ongoing relationship with ensembles and artists. Two beloved fixtures of the annual calendar are the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester and the John Wilson Orchestra – groups whose repertoire, personnel and style couldn’t be more different, yet who share that particular energy that can fill the Royal Albert Hall year after year.
Made up of Europe’s finest young musicians (no player is over 26), the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester is a thoroughbred among youth orchestras. Directed by Claudio Abbado, the ensemble balances the mature skill of professionals with the urgency that comes only from young musicians. While the symphonic repertoire shows off their full force (a 40-strong violin section sets the pace), it is more unusually as accompanist that the scope of their musicianship becomes evident.
Following on from their exquisite work with Christian Gerhaher last year at the Proms, the orchestra were this year joined by mezzo Susan Graham for Ravel’s Sheherazade. All spice-scented breezes and diaphanous draperies, Ravel’s orchestral writing embraces the unashamed Orientalism of Tristan Klingsor’s verse, handling its images with lingering care.
From the keening oboe opening we were transported, carried aloft by Graham’s silken legato and the delicate surging of the strings. Here was an orchestra sensitive not only to tempo and volume, but mirroring Graham’s tone itself, shrouding their sound and warming it to help swell hers. As an exercise in orchestral technique it was supreme, as a musical encounter it was better still.
Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements is a mercurial creature, affecting to the grand passions and gestures of Hollywood one minute before undercutting them with a cynical musical shrug the next. Sir Colin Davis, ever precise, kept his musicians poised, flirting with the kitsch melodiousness of the Andante, and the feral bassoon-led dance, but never allowing full surrender. This was reserved for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, whose big themes and bigger heart can too easily tip over into orchestral histrionics. Yet here the orchestra’s emotional conviction invested all from the horn’s chilling Fate theme to the little wind variations of the Scherzo with sincerity – a wide-eyed gaze into Tchaikovsky’s fears and hopes.
Despite the showmanship and glossy trappings – the jazz hands, diamante sparkles and big-band swagger – sincerity was also the key to the John Wilson Orchestra’s journey through the history of the Hollywood movie-musical. Their Hooray for Hollywood programme guided us from 1933’s 42nd Street through to the 1960s and Hello, Dolly!, taking in the works of Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern and Bernstein.
The orchestral arrangements (painstakingly restored and transcribed by the conductor himself) sing with the joy of spectacle and entertainment, bright with muted trumpet squeals and husky saxophone come-hithers. So lively was the characterisation from Wilson’s band (showcased in the nostalgic delights of the opening montage overture) that the addition of singers seemed almost unnecessary, but soon the anguish of Caroline O’Connor’s “The Man that Got Away” and crooning elegance (perhaps at times a little too understated) of Matthew Ford had got the audience thoroughly in the mood, and hits from Mary Poppins, Guys and Dolls and a staggeringly good “Serenade” from Mario Lanza vehicle The Student Prince had the audience twitching and jiggling in their seats.
If Wilson has a flaw it is perhaps an undue preference for ballads (clearly at a rather low ebb during the 1950s) over the up-tempo jazz numbers, which marooned us briefly on an emotional sandbank mid-concert, but with the deliciously acid “Triplets” from The Band Wagon we were underway again, powering on to the requisite big finale.
With the Proms diversifying ever further, the question of what makes (or might make) a successful Proms artist must surely be under constant revision. As events from the Comedy Prom, World Routes and the Spaghetti Western Prom have proved there is an audience for the full spectrum of genres and performers, but whether the artists offer up show-tunes and big-bands or a symphonies and an 80-piece orchestra, the criteria is the same. Excellence, and a hall-filling love of what they do make both the John Wilson Orchestra and the Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester consummate Proms artists, year after year.