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Yesterday Seems So Far Away

Album review: Paul McCartney's second symphony lacks the verve of his Beatle works, but at its essence is wonderful song.

September 23, 1997|MARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

When the Beatles used to record in the Abbey Road studios, their loud rocking and rolling would often annoy EMI's classical artists in neighboring studios. Daniel Barenboim was one of the complainers who got the Beatles to pipe down. But last summer Paul McCartney told a London newspaper that he and his mates had felt a certain righteous indignation. After all, their sales were subsidizing the company's classical recordings.

Times have changed. The classical side these days is expected to pay its own way. So what's a label to do, especially with classical sales sagging? For EMI Classics, the answer has been to co-opt its cash cow. As a celebration of the label's 100th anniversary this year, it commissioned McCartney to write a symphony. And now "Standing Stone," a 75-minute epic-tone poem for orchestra and chorus, is released today, in a performance by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus led by American conductor Lawrence Foster.

"Standing Stone" is McCartney's second classical composition, and at least as ambitious as his "Liverpool Oratorio" of five years ago. Not reading music and not having had much experience in large-scale musical form--although "Sgt. Pepper" and the White Album argue somewhat against the latter--McCartney relied upon help from his friends with the oratorio. With considerable hand-holding from film composer Carl Davis, a Beatle fashioned out of songs the nostalgic oratorio about his working-class origins in Liverpool.

If the result was perhaps artificial and overblown, the musical material was not charm, sincerity and genuine inspiration. The real problem seemed to be that McCartney, insecure at such an undertaking, had chosen his collaborator too conservatively. The Beatles' greatness had always come from both their restless experimentalism and a lot of help from their producer and arranger George Martin, who knew how to realize their often inchoate musical concepts. And, of course, there was the frisson between the Beatles themselves, particularly McCartney and John Lennon egging each other on with a continual stream of fresh ideas.

*

McCartney may be too old, too secure in his lifelong success, and too sentimental now to be as good a collaborator as he was in his Beatles days. He may also be too intimidatingly rich, famous and powerful--his colleagues are now more like hired hands. But he hasn't lost his vision or his talent. "Standing Stone" can seem painfully hokey both in some of its music and certainly in its poetic program. But it can also stop a listener short with its sheer musicality.

McCartney has taken pains to explain how "Standing Stone" is a more independently made work than "Liverpool Oratorio." Instead of dictating ideas to another composer, he composed alone at the computer, which can print out music played upon it. The computer, happily, also proved to be a kind of virtual John Lennon--electronic mistakes crept in, mucking about with McCartney's sentimental side. Wisely, McCartney recognized the interest in such dissonances and wild effects and kept them. Only later did he turn to others, including the saxophonist John Harle, to advise on structure, and the versatile composer Richard Rodney Bennett to orchestrate.

He also relied on his own ingenuity. Needing to find a way to control such a sprawling work, McCartney wrote a creation poem, a new Celtic epic as it were, as scenario. Our world is born from fire ball. Man in the form of First Person Singular arrives and begins the great struggle to become one with nature and to make a worthwhile society. The symphony ends in mighty choral song of triumph and well-being; a wordless chorus elsewhere functions to produce atmosphere.

The essence of the symphony, nonetheless, is nothing but song--often wonderful song that goes straight to the heart--made massive. And there is much terrific precedent for this. Gershwin and Bernstein are obvious examples. But so is Mahler, who brilliantly utilized folk song and popular dances in his vast and profound symphonic canvases.

McCartney's problem, though, is that he does not have the compositional means to develop material, especially at an epic length. And so he falls back on cliches to keep the programmatic ball rolling. Without development, McCartney can only expand through orchestral weight, and that means the soupiest of strings and the kind of harp glissandi that even hacks have long since tired of.

But these are times when a large symphony doesn't have to sound like that. It can be anything. McCartney can bring in his guitar and play with an orchestra. He can be as eclectic as he likes. Form doesn't mean what it used to--collages can be messy. This is a moment in history when it is actually interesting to let the rock 'n' roll in the studio next door bleed into Beethoven.

McCartney has become a knight and respectable, and with "Standing Stone" he is writing respectable music. But respectable symphonic knights happen to be a dime a dozen in Britain.

There is, however, only one Paul McCartney, and classical music could really use a Beatle right now.

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