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Review: Cole Porter in Hollywood, Hall One, Sage Gateshead

Rob Barnes takes in an evening with The John Wilson Orchestra who brought down two packed houses on Tyneside

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John Wilson of the John Wilson Orchestra
John Wilson of the John Wilson Orchestra

The nation’s musical love affair with John Wilson continued undiminished when the conductor visited home ground towards the end of an intense month touring the UK with his renowned orchestra.

He has a fine instinct for tapping into a seam of happiness and fond memories, and in the space of six hours on Friday, he proved the point conclusively by filling Hall One at the Sage twice over, bringing his brand of joy to nearly 3.500 people on the day.

The Gateshead-born conductor knows that the great music which American icon Cole Porter wrote for film and stage, still has a home in the heart, just as his previous presentations of Rodgers and Hammerstein and the classic MGM musicals did.

His new show was a brash and uninhibited celebration of the golden age of Hollywood – every song a gem and everyone in the audience with a smile as wide as the Sage concourse, lapping up every song and every memory.

The occasion was made even more memorable by the conductor’s choice of soloists, Anna-Jane Casey, Scarlett Strallen, Matthew Ford and Richard Morrison, all possessing performance confidence in abundance coupled with that iconic sound and style of 1940s Hollywood.

It is 50 years since Cole Porter died, and this tribute was made honourably with the original orchestrations, so we were treated to an exact replica of the Hollywood soundstage experience.

Close your eyes and you were there, experiencing a master-class in Porter’s lyricism, such as ‘he went through wild ecstatics, when I showed him my lymphatics’, and rhyming Napoleon Brandy with Mahatma Gandhi.

So many hits tumbled one after the other; I’ve Got You Under My Skin, Night and Day, Anything Goes, Begin the Beguine, Who Wants to be a Millionaire – the favourites were all there, but also some gems which slipped through the popularity net at the time, but brought back to life by Wilson as he trawled the Cole Porter songbook to programme this concert.

You Can Do No Wrong, from Porter’s score for his ballet The Pirate, stood out as one of these revivals.

Just as the Hollywood studios could hire the best musicians money could buy, the John Wilson Orchestra is a hand picked ensemble, which, like Sage Gateshead, celebrate their 10th anniversary this year.

Their responses to the conductor’s instructions were always razor-sharp, whether soothing strings, strident horns or jazz saxes. A great orchestra on top of their game.

John Wilson, with his now familiarly informative style, played his audience superbly, coupling gentle Geordie humour: “the only venue where I don’t need an interpreter on the side of the stage”, with genial and effortless self-promotion.

He returns to Sage Gateshead on January 18 and March 15 with two Sunday afternoon concerts, much to the ongoing delight of his legions of followers.

Rob Barnes

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