Opening night galas at the Hollywood Bowl used to mean Beethoven or Mahler under the stars, and the realization that these weren’t real openings at all — not after weeks of “pre-season” concerts. Well, things have changed in Cahuenga Pass — suddenly, startlingly. The “gala” opening is now the real McCoy, the first concert of the Bowl season. And rather than lead with a fistful of European symphonic music, the Bowl celebrated the music of a different European tradition — the Beatles — as conducted by their producer/catalyst, Sir George Martin.
One blanched at the tedious way in which the concert began, with cliche after overheated cliche tumbling forth at great length from actor Michael York. Yet Sir George, in his first appearance here since a 1973 date with the rock group America, lent an air of dignity and graciousness to the affair after the tasteless hullabaloo of the buildup.
Martin talked personably, with obviously unique insight and eloquence, about his experiences with the Beatles; he clearly remains in genuine awe of their talent. He turned out to be a very competent conductor, displaying a clear, restrained beat and quiet authority. And despite problems with balance, he did preside over some memorable musical passages — along with others that did not come off well outdoors.
The publicity suggested that we were going to hear rare public performances of the orchestrations that Martin made for the Beatles’ now-historic recordings. Well, it’s not that simple, for Martin’s contributions were not always performable, self-contained orchestrations. They could be decorations, inserts, brilliant extrapolations of suggestions made by the Beatles, or outright collaborations — and many were not written for a symphony orchestra.
So a lot of what was heard at the Bowl lacked the spirit and feel of Martin’s charts on the records — the “Eleanor Rigby” music for string octet blown up to symphonic proportions, the thrilling pair of crescendos from “A Day in the Life” surrounded by unnaturally bombastic backing for the rest of the song. Other songs that did not have orchestral writing on the records received the treatment anyway. They could be restrained and tasteful (“Yesterday”), resourceful (Martin transcribing his famous speeded-up piano solo from “In My Life” for strings), or merely gaudy symphonic pops (“I Want to Hold Your Hand”).
There was a brave attempt at the deliciously loony chart for “I Am the Walrus,” but it was cut off by an abrupt concert ending just before it got really wild, as was “All You Need is Love.” The biggest irony was hearing Martin conduct what amounted to the Phil Spector-ized chart for “The Long and Winding Road,” which Martin once pointedly derided as “laden with treacle.” The results, alas, confirmed his astute assessment.
But some original artifacts, such as the closing medley to the “Abbey Road” album and “For No One” — with its horn call superbly played by John Reynolds — came off pretty well. Easily the most authentic moment in the show — and to my ears, the most moving — was Sir George ardently conducting a suite from his own wonderfully melodic symphonic score for the film “Yellow Submarine,” where the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra could finally be heard clearly.
As the evening unfolded, Martin introduced a hodgepodge of guest rock, pop and classical performers — including two-thirds of the Police (Andy Summers on guitar, Stewart Copeland on overly aggressive drums) — who served up the John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison melodies with varying degrees of success.
The much-touted reunion of the Bangles — singing together for the first time in 10 years — was a bit of a bust; they were often out of tune and out of their depth, though “Across the Universe” was all right. Brad Delp (of Boston) contented himself with decent McCartney impressions; Peter Case conjured a faint facsimile of Lennon. Classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco had no trouble with the intricate filigree of “Here Comes the Sun” — though he, too, differed in pitch with the orchestra — and British violinist Pip Clarke performed a “Because” mini-concerto.
While quibbling over details is a favorite sport among millions of Beatleologists, ultimately those timeless tunes were sturdy enough to sweep the 13,489 customers away. And thanks to a few self-appointed female screamers in the boxes, Beatlemania circa 1964-65 (the years of the Fab Four’s Bowl appearances) was sometimes at our throats again.