Emma Clegg is dazzled by Wiltshire Music Centre’s season opening with Alex Mendham and his Orchestra’s celebration of Hollywood’s golden age of music
This was an evening pulsating with the music of the 1920s and 1930s with the original golden sounds of the era performed by stars such as Duke Ellington, Glenn Miller, Cole Porter and Louis Armstrong. The popular, toe-tapping jazz and swing music of nearly 100 years ago is strikingly familiar to most of us, because this is a classic style that has become part of our musical history, a resonant, powerful, charismatic echo of the era.
Alex Mendham, not yet 30, and his 10-piece orchestra with the vocals of the two Dunlop sisters brought an amazing, infectious youthful enthusiasm to the Wiltshire Music Centre. Strong impressions were of sharp tuxedos and bow ties; pomade slicked hair; body-hugging sparkling silver dresses for the sisters; really, really big, unfaltering Cheshire Cat smiles all round; and a jazz swing rhythm that worked its way at speed to your core.
The joyful, smooth, unforgettable beat of Duke Ellington’s It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing will no doubt have already slipped effortlessly into your rhythm memory, and this piece sums up the high performance musical vibe of the evening. Irving Berlin’s Top Hat: “I’m puttin’ on my top hat, tyin’ up my white tie, brushin’ off my tails” welcomed the full-on Hollywood Glamour of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
Another classic, Jeepers Creepers, composed by Harry Warren and premiered by Louis Armstrong, is a catchy song about a wild horse who will only let someone ride him when Louis Armstrong’s character Gabriel in the 1938 movie Going Places plays the song on his trumpet. I loved The Broken Record by Henry Hall, often used in the era, Alex told us, to finish an evening’s set: “My sweetheart, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you, I do”, where the phrasal repetition reflects the broken record and the addiction of the performer’s love – absolutely magic.
There was even a piece that was the orchestra’s swing-time version of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor. It definitely had more ‘swing’ than Rachmaninov’s, but this is, after all, what was required.
The warm, smooth, polished sounds of Alex Mendham’s voice brought the songs vocally to the fore, but he shared the limelight enthusiastically with his talented orchestra, conducting them as he shimmied to the beat across the stage and back in his high-shine black shoes, and crediting each soloist as they stood up to perform – including sax, clarinet, bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone.
The drummer and percussionist was superb, performing a piece called Washboard Wiggles with, you’ve guessed it, a washboard, executed with clownish humour and washboard tapping panache.
The Dunlop sisters brought a double helping of sweet glamour to the stage, looking like smiling porcelain dolls in shimmering dresses and singing cheek to cheek in sugary tones into the microphone. Although, they did spend a fair bit of time walking on stage to perform and then disappearing off stage again, which was a little distracting.
Most of all, though, everyone was having a rhythmic, revelling, in-the-swing-of-it jazzy ball. The only frustration was that while the musicians were performing onstage, the audience was seated – so no room for dancing and fully absorbing the addictive beats – so shoulder jiggling and marking time with fingers and toes was the only option. Dancing floor required next time please.