Classic songs and scores from the Warner Brothers studios in a movies night at the Proms
08 August, 2019 — By Michael White
John Wilson and his orchestra
It became one of those moments of Hollywood legend when, in 1955, the film composer Dimitri Tiomkin accepted an Oscar for his latest soundtrack score and thanked … not his agent or his mother but Brahms, Wagner, Strauss and all the other great musicians of the past whose work had underpinned his own.
It might have been a joke – but was in fact a truth that will be demonstrated at the Albert Hall this Friday (August 9) when the Prom is entirely given over to film scores from the great days of the Warner Brothers studios.
It’s strange to think that in the early days of talking pictures the studios were cautious about adding music, worried that the audience would be unsettled by the sound of an invisible orchestra – which is why they tended to limit the music to situations where there was some clear visual reference: a beggar with a violin or people singing in the street.
But that soon changed. And by the 1930s émigré musicians – often Jews escaping Nazi-dominated Central Europe – were pouring into the now-substantial Hollywood music departments, bringing their Viennese, Czech or German high-art cultures with them.
They included figures like Erich Korngold and Max Steiner who both star in Friday’s programme. But sharing the spotlight is the man who has put the programme together: the conductor John Wilson, leading his own orchestra.
Wilson has acquired very considerable fame for his work in re-evaluating classic 20th-century Hollywood and Broadway scores. He does it in a serious, scholarly but also entertaining way, with chutzpah. And he’s been doing it at the Proms for the past 10 years – launching his career with a Proms celebration of the great MGM soundtracks back in 2009.
Since then he’s branched out into other directions, and has been conducting opera this summer at Glyndebourne. But Hollywood remains home territory. And Friday’s Prom was so guaranteed to generate a run on tickets that he’s doing it twice, at 3pm and 7.30pm. Such is success.
As for the rest of the Promming week, it’s diva-heavy – with the young but mega-voiced Norwegian soprano Lise Davidson showing her tender side in Strauss’s Four Last Songs on Saturday night (August 10), and the much-loved American superstar Joyce DiDonato all aglow in Berlioz’s Nuits d’Eté on Sunday morning at the ungodly hour of 11am (set your alarm clocks).
Sadly, Britain’s homegrown diva, the now-damed Sarah Connolly, has had to pull out of Wednesday’s Prom because she’s been having cancer treatment – from which we all earnestly hope and pray she makes a good recovery. But that leaves one other powerful woman in the week’s line-up: and she is that ultimate queen of the keyboard Martha Argerich.
Arguably the greatest living pianist, certainly the most exciting and dynamic, Argerich is scheduled to play Tchaikovsky’s 1st Concerto on Monday evening (August 12), under the baton of her long-time friend and colleague Daniel Barenboim. But she’s notorious for cancelling appearances, so you can only keep your fingers crossed.
As always, every Prom is broadcast live on Radio 3, and some make it to TV after the event. Full details: bbc.co.uk/proms