Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio (1991)

History: For the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 150th anniversary, they reached out to Paul to see if he would be interested in writing a piece for them to perform. Since Paul is not classically trained in music, he collaborated with Carl Davis, a classical composer and conductor. They took elements from Paul’s life to start the story and then branched out into more fictional territory to complete it. One scathing Guardian article suggests that Paul didn’t do much more than hum tunes for Carl to write out into more complex pieces for the musicians to play, but I’m willing to bet it was a bit more of a collaborative process than that.

My own personal history and initial prediction: As I largely hinted at with last week’s “next time” section, this isn’t an album I’m familiar with nor am I particularly versed in classical music as a whole. I never played in band or took piano lessons or otherwise spent much time learning musical theory, so while I’m not opposed to this style of music, it’s not something I know much about or turn to often when choosing to listen. I’m probably even more ignorant of operas and oratorios in particular, the latter of which I guessed the meaning of but had technically never heard the term before I saw this album on the list. I aim to give it my best shot as an amateur.

Review: I’m not going to lie, this was a difficult one to sit through. As I said, I’m not opposed to classical music, but operas are something I’m even less experienced with. I’m the type of person who prefers the film version of Phantom of the Opera to the Royal Albert Hall performance because the latter is just way too opera rather than musical for me. Soprano singers, while immensely talented, are very difficult for me to even understand at points, particularly the more they embrace the vibrato in their voices. As such I had a really hard time even knowing what Kiri Te Kanawa’s characters were even singing about for most of these songs. Jerry Hadley’s voice was at least a little more what I am used to, particularly in that I used to watch the 1965 television version of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella that starred Stuart Damon as the prince who had a very similar singing style. I didn’t listen along with a lyric sheet so I was just doing my best to understand them and the chorus as I went, and I’ll admit the chorus was also a struggle to understand.

So a lot of the plot is probably lost on me, though I at least picked up the key elements. The main problem is that they seem to be doing a purposeful juxtaposition between normal every day life and these big operatic movements and styles, and to me it just comes off as making a really big to do about nothing. The whole thing really hits the height of ridiculousness with “Where’s My Dinner?” which I couldn’t help but think of a certain commercial that frequently aired in the 90s about spousal abuse. (“Dinner ready is pizza?!”) I found an interview with Paul where he specifically spoke of the song and how big fights in marriages are often about little things rather than something important, and I do totally agree with that, but that doesn’t mean you should build an operatic movement around it.

Musically at least, I can be far more kind. While it’s hard to tell exactly where Paul’s and Carl’s writing end and begin, there are absolutely some melodies running throughout the piece that have Paul’s trademark style all over them. The instrumentation is really lovely, making full use of the orchestra and obviously using certain instruments and melodies to follow up on themes or moods throughout the entire piece. If this was just a straight up instrumental, I think I would have enjoyed my time with it a lot more. As it was I didn’t find it to be a complete slog, but I did have a hard time really engaging with it.

This is no doubt a far kinder review than my husband would write if this was his blog. He was in the house while I was listening, and even from another room while working on other things, he started to feel tortured. I offered to switch to headphones and he declined, so he has no one to blame but himself on that. He did however come up with a great comment for the whole experience: “This is Paul McCartney Goes Too Far.” I’ll be interested to see if his later classical collaborations are more of the same or an improvement over this particular experiment.

Next Time: Ringo returns after a nine year break with Time Takes Time.

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