Say this for Paul McCartney’s much-debated “Liverpool Oratorio”– it is a minor miracle that it exists at all. And judging from its West Coast premiere, the work, flaws and all, is strong enough to be elevated by an energetic interpretation, courtesy of conductor William Hall.
McCartney and collaborator/amanuensis Carl Davis made headlines when Davis led this ambitious 97-minute work at the Liverpool Cathedral in June 1991. The performance, recorded and released by EMI Classics a year ago, went to the top of Billboard’s classical chart, though it took a beating from many critics in the classical and rock camps.
Though we may never know– and it is a matter of hot dispute– exactly how much of this oratorio is McCartney and how much is Davis, they’ve assembled a graceful, eclectic, if conservative, score, laced with a few flashes of the McCartney melodic touch. With the exception of a grand reference to Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 a minute from the end, it doesn’t seem to crib or steal from anyone.
However, the text is, to put it politely, often embarrassing. After following for a time McCartney’s own life story of growing up in Liverpool, it veers off into the most banal urban melodrama, reaching a low point when the poor tenor is forced to whine, “Where’s my dinner?” Again, as has often happened in his 22 -year post-Beatle career, McCartney is at a loss for eloquent words.
But give McCartney credit; he put his artistic capital on the line at an age when he would have been perfectly entitled to coast as the most successful songwriter of the 20th century.
He took a gigantic risk, trying to sustain an evening-length work after being confined most of his life to miniature pop tunes–and on that count at least, he and Davis have succeeded.
Moreover, William Hall made the piece come alive in ways that Davis could not in Liverpool. Particularly in the first half, Hall insisted upon more propulsive tempos and crisper choral work than Davis, restraining the bathos, playing to McCartney’s essential playfulness, revving up the orchestral dances with the help of a very good pickup ensemble.
Despite uneven solo vocal performances, some creaky moments of synchronization between singers and orchestra, and appallingly out-of-tune solo violin work by Albert Stern, the performance held one’s attention nicely.
Alas, after keeping the press tantalized for months on will-he-or-won’t-he show up, McCartney chose not to attend the performance.