PBS introduces McCartney's 'Oratorio'


Well, he's not 64 yet, but Paul McCartney is moving in on the half-century mark. That happens next year. So, one supposes it's about time for a rock 'n' roller to turn his ear to the quieter strains of classical music.

It seems like yesterday that Paul and the other Beatles were the ragged, long-haired hippies wandering amid the orchestra they had hired to play on "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," encouraging these classically trained musicians to play with cacophony, without regular tempo, before joining for that haunting closing chord of "A Day in the Life."

But it wasn't yesterday. It was 24 years ago.

So now here's Paul, dressed in his three-piece suit, standing in front of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, listening to them play his "Liverpool Oratorio," which is not at all cacophonous and has a very regular tempo.

Tonight's edition of PBS' "Great Performances" is the television premiere of McCartney's work, preceded by a documentary about its making. It will be on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67, at 8:30.

McCartney was commissioned to compose a piece to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Liverpool orchestra. As he notes in the documentary, he could have --ed off a three-minute string quartet; instead he went for an eight-movement oratorio.

His collaborator, and the conductor, is noted musician Carl Davis. What the documentary does not reveal -- perhaps on purpose -- is how much of the work belongs to McCartney and how much to Davis.

McCartney needed assistance, not only because he was entering a new world, but also because he can't even read music. In the brief bits of collaboration that are shown, McCartney is --ing off riffs on the piano, or singing his way through changes, as Davis frantically makes notes on his score.

Much of the documentary is devoted to the rehearsal period as McCartney and Davis work with a boys' choir, a complete chorale, the orchestra and the various soloists, including soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and tenor Jerry Hadley.

It appears that the music is largely McCartney's ideas brought to full orchestral life by Davis. What is clear is that the subject of the oratorio is all Paul's. It's about a young boy, born like McCartney in Liverpool during World War II in 1942. As with Paul and George Harrison, this boy went to a school whose Latin motto was eerily prophetic -- not for yourself, but for the whole world, were you born. Those words, in Latin and English, recur throughout the oratorio.

The boy grows into adulthood, marries, has his troubles, but then has a child. As the circle of the story closes, becoming a father reminds this man of the importance of, and his place in, the community that nourished his life.

There is no doubt that hearing this story, written by someone who rose from Liverpool's working class to become one of the most famous people in the world, played and sung in Liverpool's magnificent cathedral by an institution that goes back 150 years, gives it a resonance that is undeniably moving.

That said, McCartney's work is much like most of what he has turned out in his post-Beatles years -- pleasant and admirable, but lacking a certain depth. You keep wishing that along with Davis, McCartney could have had another Liverpudlian as his collaborator -- John Lennon.

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