The superb John Wilson Orchestra, specializing in classic Hollywood and Broadway tunes, returned the “Golden Age” of yesteryear to the BBC Proms with a cavalcade of delightfully memorable music featured in Warner Brothers films from the early 1930s to the late ’60s. A millennial might look up from his avocado toast to ask who remembers such antiquities, but this concert was nearly sold out. The Royal Albert Hall’s standing-room-only stalls section smilingly swayed to the jazzy melodies in a manner of concert attendance rarely observed in England but vividly reminiscent of an era when behemoth movie studios employed vast music departments and full orchestras staffed by an immense pool of talent that had fled war-torn Europe for California’s milder climate and gentler politics.

Wilson’s orchestra has a decade-long association with the Proms, going back to a 2009 concert featuring selections from musicals produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Since then, it has tendered toward semi-staged classic musicals, with the occasional diversion into concerts of set numbers. The rewards on this particular night were immense and amply proved the contemporary film composer John Williams’s point that “if it weren’t for the movies, no one would be able to write this kind of [classical] music anymore.”

Accordingly, the concert began with Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s spirited overture to The Sea Hawk, Michael Curtiz’s 1940 swashbuckler featuring Errol Flynn. Korngold, a musical prodigy steeped in the late–German Romantic tradition and praised by Richard Strauss on his way to becoming a serious composer at the age of twenty, landed in Hollywood as a Jewish refugee. Never quite forgetting his training in the classical tradition, he limited himself to sixteen film scores, but infused them with the narrative excitement that his colleague Max Steiner, a fellow prodigy of Jewish heritage who completed the four-year program at Vienna’s Imperial Academy of Music in just one year, had already introduced to Hollywood. Steiner proved the more prolific of the two, churning out some three hundred film scores, twenty-four of which were nominated for Academy Awards, with three taking the Oscar. His genius lay in his assignment of Wagnerian leitmotifs to characters and situations, often insinuating them ironically amid lush orchestral depictions of dynamic action when things go awry. Wilson performed a suite of Steiner’s music for Curtiz’s iconic Casablanca in an earlier Proms program, but he more than made up for its absence in this concert by featuring his own favorite Steiner score—in a suite of his own arrangement—of the nearly contemporaneous Now, Voyager (1942). This Pygmalion story, starring Bette Davis, chronicles a neurotic Bostonian teenager’s metamorphosis into a self-confident woman capable of handling the complexities of an affair with a married man played by the dashing Paul Henried (Casablanca’s idealistic anti-Nazi resistance leader). Under Wilson’s baton, the film’s themes moved from nervy to triumphant, following the story in all its delicious detail. Steiner’s suite for John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a 1948 neo-western laid over with a classic film-noir double cross that only Humphrey Bogart could pull off, also resonated with enthralling verve.

Wilson’s program offered an eclectic sampling otherwise, one that nevertheless captured the evolution of film music over the decades that defined classic Hollywood. The program’s earliest piece, Harry Warren’s “We’re in the Money,” sung by the Maida Vale Singers, brought us back to the pre–Hays Code exuberance (and near nudity) of Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. The baritone Matt Ford gave his best performance in Harold Arlen’s “Blues in the Night,” a standard that arrived well before its time in Anatole Litvak’s eponymous film of 1941, in which jazz musicians shift uneasily from classic jazz to the idiom of blues. Alex North’s title music for Elia Kazan’s 1951 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire marked another step in the evolution of Hollywood tunes—at the time of the film, the score was so racy that the censorship removed its percussive rhythms for sounding too sexual.

Original screen musicals—that is to say, those that were not adapted from an existing stage musical—were well represented by the talented soprano Louise Dearman’s performance of “The Deadwood Stage” from Calamity Jane (1953) and her irrepressible colleague Mikaela Bennett in Jule Styne’s “It’s Magic” from Romance on the High Seas (1948), the recently deceased Doris Day’s debut picture, which still manages to be more enjoyable than the dopey bedroom comedies of the actress’s later career. Wilson’s orchestra also shone in Bronisław Kaper’s title theme from the 1958 film Auntie Mame, the Rosalind Russell tour de force that itself inspired a derivative stage musical and endures as the clear preference to the unfortunate 1974 musical film adaptation starring a grotesquely miscast Lucille Ball and a humiliated Beatrice Arthur, who described her participation in it as “a tremendous embarrassment.”

The more cautious Hollywood of the 1960s resounded in selections from Warner Brothers films based on musicals that enjoyed the currency of proven stage success. Ford lacked Stanley Holloway’s louche bluster in My Fair Lady’s “Get Me to the Church On Time” (1964), but the film’s London contexts pleased the crowd as much as anything apart from Bennett’s lovingly sung encore, “I Could Have Danced All Night,” from the same film. Ford did rather better in Frederick Lowe’s “If Ever I Would Leave You,” from 1969’s Camelot, but the tune’s plaintive themes reminded us that the film more or less marked the end of a spent genre in a Hollywood of changing tastes and decentralized production practices. More evocative, however, was Wilson’s reading of Styne’s overture to the 1962 film adaptation of Gypsy, complete with whooping brass to evoke the strippers of Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents’s blockbuster stage musical. Ford returned for an estimable rendition of “Seventy-Six Trombones” from Meredith Willson’s The Music Man, the stage version of which defeated West Side Story in all but two of 1958’s Tony Award categories (choreography and scenic design).

André Previn, who came of age in classic Hollywood, once answered a critic who dismissed Korngold’s music for sounding “all Hollywood” by retorting that “Hollywood music all sounds like Korngold.” A more fitting tribute could not have been conceived than the concert’s finale, which featured the capable young mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey in her Proms debut in a performance of Korngold’s “Tomorrow,” from The Constant Nymph, a star-studded 1943 tearjerker adapted from a novel whose author’s will prevented public screening from its initial cinema run until 2011. Sophisticated beyond even Korngold’s normal caliber of Hollywood fare, it was the only cinema composition to which he assigned a numbered opus (Op. 33, in this case). In performance, it stood as a powerful reminder of Hollywood’s musical legacy, which is now largely gone beyond the work of only a few directors in the category of Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Woody Allen.

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