John Wilson promised us that we would be hearing the Birmingham premieres of many of Cole Porter’s movie orchestrations in their original format, and what gems they proved, especially when delivered with the enthusiasm and style of the hand-picked John Wilson Orchestra in this year marking the 50th anniversary of the composer/lyricist’s death.
Every instrumental section was built from strength, from silky violins to tangy percussion, and with no disrespect to the marvellous quartet of vocalists, highlights of this exuberant evening were the two orchestral ballets: Silk Stockings (charmingly introduced by the so-natural Wilson), and especially, the little-known The Pirate, an amazing concept adroitly arranged by Conrad Salinger.
But of course we had chiefly come for the songs, those jewels where music and brilliant, Noel Cowardesque lyrics are so deftly attuned – and what a shock we had when the vocalists first burst in, over miked to the extent of damaging the ear-drums. Wilson could be seen turning to the sound room and miming instructions, and sound-levels did improve.
The soloists were sensitive in their responsive phrasing of Cole Porter’s musico-dramatic vocal lines. Scarlett Strallen cast an almost operatic aura over So in Love, Richard Morrison brought a huge personality to Where is the Life that late I led (though he was disappointingly bland in Night and Day, the greatest show song ever written), and Matthew Ford and Anna-Jane Casey, both remarkably engaging performers, were simply stunning in Who wants to be a Millionaire.
As well as the Night and Day disappointment, we can add The Physician. For all Strallen’s devoted delivery, this was a version I didn’t recognise, culled from the Julie Andrews’ biopic The Star, and nothing like the performance I adore from the brittle Gertrude Lawrence, the subject of that film.