★★★★★ John Wilson’s passion and panache has Sydney shouting Hooray for Hollywood.

Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
June 16, 2016

The Golden Age of Hollywood may have lasted only 30 years, but what an era! The rich musical sound conjured up to accompany the early film industry was fermented out of late German and Russian Romanticism, with a soupçon of French Impressionism and dashes here and there of Schoenbergian 12-tone and jazz. The skills of a host of émigrés escaping European persecution were mixed with the local homebrew being developed by the likes of Gershwin and Copland. It was a heady mix. These scores exude craft – composers like Korngold, Steiner, Waxman and Herrmann were at the very top of their games – but the music was essentially functional, designed to help tell a story. It’s a rare pleasure then to hear it played in the concert hall where its piquant qualities can be savoured in full.

On the current musical scene, few advocates have done as much for the Hollywood sound as British conductor and arranger John Wilson. Still in his early 40s, his respect, love and passion for the period, in particular for the great MGM musicals, radiates from every pore. He understands how this music should be played, is a mine of anecdotal information, and communicates it to orchestras and audiences alike with a relaxed determination that’s utterly infectious. His Hollywood Rhapsody programme for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was put together with meticulous taste and, combined with some stylish period-informed playing, came across in all its Technicolor splendour.

Beginning with Alfred Newman’s famous 20th Century Fox Fanfare – all snare drums, brass and sweeping strings – the SSO piled straight into John Williams’ Star Wars, the latest music on the programme but very much in a direct line from Korngold with its spirit-lifting tunes and palate-tickling orchestrations. Wilson is a man unafraid to look encouragingly at the brass – and what a sound the SSO trumpets, horns, trombones and tuba made – but he’s also a fastidious conductor, never tempted to wallow, always seeking clarity and a real stickler for details. His beat is clean and clear, his stance determined. He ccasionally clings to the podium rail as if to steady the emotions, the better to steer the ship.

Among the treats on offer were the haunting main theme from David Raskin’s score for Otto Preminger’s noir-esque Laura with ravishing wind solos over mysterious strings and celeste (and a magical central waltz), and a suite from Herrmann’s classic score to Pscyho, the effect of witnessing the infamous scree-scree-scree moment with string section a-go-go was like watching something out of Sweeney Todd. Meanwhile, Opera Australia regular Lorina Gore impressed in Herrmann’s Schreker-meets-French-grand-opera spoof from Citizen Kane, her radiant soprano soaring over even the heaviest brass and percussion to land on a magnificent top something or other. Jerome Moross’s joyous theme for The Big Country with its fanfares and ‘widescreen’ strings was the perfect example of that uniquely American movie genre, the Western.

Topping the evening were two of the biggest hitters of the era. Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an early émigré from his native Vienna and practically defined the Hollywood sound. In fact, he was so imitated and ubiquitous that 20 years later people were claiming that Korngold was imitating Hollywood. Wilson described his score for The Adventures of Robin Hood as “the single greatest achievement in film music” and proceeded to show why. From the catchy, swaggering march with Korngold’s typically magical tuned percussion in the central section, through the impressionistic love scene complete with a Straussian ‘arietta’ that could have come straight out of Ariadne auf Naxos, and the punchy underscore for the swordfight to end all swordfights, the SSO gave a bravura performance. The rousing cheers at the end were a tribute to both conductor and orchestra.

A perfectly finessed suite from Gone with the Wind (reconstructed and arranged by Wilson himself) showed off the genius of the very first of the European composers to arrive in Hollywood: the workaholic Max Steiner. Boasting in Tara’s Theme one of the greatest tunes in all film music, it was an extraordinary achievement, especially when you learn he wrote three hours of film music in three weeks while managing to work up another four film scores at the same time! Led by concertmaster Andrew Haveron (coincidentally a longtime colleague of Wilson from way back), the orchestra really entered into the spirit of the thing, clearly relishing the opportunity to play such big, bold, heart-on-sleeve music.

The evening’s greatest fun came in the form of a laugh-out-loud six-minute suite from MGM’s legendary Tom and Jerry cartoon series. Scott Bradley’s madcap cat and mouse mayhem was encapsulated in a crazy musical ride that referenced pretty much everything from Rhapsody in Blue to The Trolley Song. The percussion section really went for gold here juggling ratchets, swanee whistles, a typewriter and a pistol while popping bubble wrap and even smashing plates at one point.

Wilson chose to play us out with perhaps Hollywood’s biggest beast: The March of the Charioteers from Miklós Rózsa’s epic score for Ben Hur. Surprisingly not the most enormous piece in the score (according to Wilson, one scene required 188 players!) nevertheless this was an earthshattering brass and percussion-fest with two side drums, bass drum, timps, handbells, tambourines and two pairs of cymbals. And if the audience reckoned that was exhilarating, it was almost topped by the encore Overture from Franz Waxman’s Taras Bulba.

As concerts go, this golden evening of golden music from a golden age was well-nigh faultless. It’s not everyday you get to hear an orchestra play such relative concert rarities with such panache and heart, lead by a conductor whose love and understanding of the music is conveyed to such a palpable extent. With plenty more top-notch Korngold, Herrmann and Steiner, it can only be hoped that Wilson is invited back as soon as possible to deliver more of the same.