12 September 2011

A Celebration of Fred Astaire and his Leading Ladies

By Rachel Sloane


A Celebration of Fred Astaire and his Leading Ladies by John Wilson Orchestra at Snape Proms 31 August 2011.


Last year John Wilson opened the Snape Proms with his concert of Rogers and Hammerstein music. This year he closed the month-long music extravaganza with his latest composition, a reworking of the Great American Songbook, A Celebration of Fred Astaire and his Leading Ladies.


The added thrill was that, as last year, a very similar concert was also part of the BBC Proms. The Albert Hall may have had a chorus, four soloists rather than two and a few more musicians but essentially the Suffolk audience could enjoy a gentle drive to Snape rather than battle the crowds in London – and could then watch the BBC version on their televisions.


I knew I was going to arrive late at the concert because I was presenting Drivetime on BBC Radio Suffolk. Arriving, I found the previously offered seats in the concert hall’s “late box” had been sold, and I chose not to go to my booked seat during applause, so I enjoyed the first half of the concert from the foyer. It was like hearing a live concert on the radio and a slightly surreal experience – and if it hadn’t been for three hospitable ushers and my worries about the possibility of unseen CCTV cameras, I would have been doing my own impersonation of Ginger Rogers and danced happily in the empty entrance hall!


The music was that of Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Lane and Lerner and other great American composers. Songs like Flying down to Rio, The way you look tonight, Putting on the Ritz, A couple of swells, etc may have been hits before I was born but I knew all the words (well, the choruses at least), probably because of wet Sunday afternoons watching classic musicals on TV.   


John Wilson’s passion is the music of old films and, as an acknowledged expert in jazz and light music, he has used his knowledge to return to the  compositions and recreate the distinctive sound of the original arrangements through his arranging and conducting.


I enjoyed the second half of the concert from my seat in the auditorium. With a huge Big Band sound, John Wilson and his orchestra smiled broadly as they performed the music they obviously love. Baritone Matthew Ford (singing Fred Astaire) sounded as though he was born to be a big band and swing singer, with a rich, effortless, mellow voice like melted chocolate. Broadway singer, Kim Criswell, narrated the story of Fred Astaire’s career, singing the parts of all his favourite leading ladies, Ginger Rogers, Judy Garland , Audrey Hepburn et al, changing styles accordingly – including as the sassy showgirl (Jane Powell) in How could you believe me when I said I loved you when you know I’ve been a liar al my life?    


I, like most of the audience I suspect, left Snape Proms Concert hall dancing a few steps, singing and humming and wondering how on earth John Wilson will follow that!   (I did hear the part of the concert I missed on the televised BBC Proms a week later, too. Very considerate of them!. )