11/14/97: PAUL McCARTNEY'S STANDING STONE

Nearly 35 years after his legendary first American performance with the Beatles transformed American popular culture, Paul McCartney arrives in New York this week for a very different kind of musical debut.

On November 19, Carnegie Hall -- just a few blocks north of the Ed Sullivan Theater where the Beatles played their televised debut in February 1964 -- will host the United States premiere of Standing Stone, McCartney's ambitious new "symphonic poem," commissioned by EMI Classics to commemorate the record company's centenary. The piece, McCartney's first symphonic work, was unveiled by the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus and conductor Lawrence Foster at the Royal Albert Hall in October; Foster returns to lead the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the New York Choral Artists at Carnegie Hall. Strangely, it is this 75-minute, quasi-mystical meditation on the composer's Celtic roots which has, for the first time in over a decade, returned one of pop music's greatest hit-makers to the top of the charts: the LSO's recording of Standing Stone has occupied the #1 position on Billboard's Classical Album chart

for six straight weeks since its release.

The newly- knighted "Sir Paul" is one of a growing number of popular musicians venturing into classical territory. A few years back, Elvis Costello, the brilliant English singer-songwriter (an occasional songwriting partner of McCartney's) recorded The Juliet Letters, an original song suite for voice and strings, with the Brodksy Quartet; Billy Joel has recently renounced pop music altogether, vowing to focus exclusively on classical composition. Often, pop musicians who undertake classical excursions find themselves doubly maligned: pop fans and critics regard these departures as signs of pretentiousness, fogiedom, impending senility; classical critics decry the pop stars as dilettantes and naifs.

McCartney is at once the ultimate sitting duck for this sort of criticism, and the exception to the rule. Like most rock musicians, McCartney has had no formal musical training. He can neither read nor write music. For his 1991 classical debut, Liverpool Oratorio, McCartney relied on the composer Carl Davis to translate his melodic ideas, composed on piano, into a full-fledged score. For Standing Stone, McCartney had a "virtual" collaborator -- he used a computer program to score his keyboard musings for orchestral instruments.

Classical purists may scoff at McCartney's unorthodox compositional method, but no one can deny the fact that he is uniquely qualified to attempt this audacious musical "crossover." By any measure, McCartney is one of the century's most important and influential composers; his career has been marked by his efforts to integrate classical musical elements into the pop song form. McCartney -- not his more rock 'n' roll-inclined partner, John Lennon -- was the visionary behind the Beatles' "classical" experiments: the famous, stately french horn solo in "For No One," the baroque piccolo trumpet part which enlivened "Penny Lane" (McCartney's gloss on Bach's Brandenberg Concertos), the marvelously expressive use of string octet in "Eleanor Rigby," the song

suite-like sweep of the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. McCartney's elegant, extraordinarily melodic, deeply idiosyncratic compositions for the Beatles have long startled and impressed classical musicians and critics alike (Leonard Bernstein was a particularly effusive admirer of McCartney's songs).

Whether McCartney will succeed in finding his voice as a classical composer remains to be seen. Reviews of Standing Stone have been mixed. Critics have lauded the work's musicality, but grumbled about its pastiches of Ives and Brahms, and the New Age-y hokum of its Celtic theme. Of course, a tendency towards hokey, sickly sweetness has always been one of McCartney's tragic flaws and one of his best qualities -- part of what made the Beatles so great is the sunny optimism that pervades so much of their work. Surely the sell-out crowd at Carnegie Hall will hear a little something of "All You Need Is Love" in Standing Stone's denouement, when its chorus declares "Love is the oldest secret of the universe."

-- Jody Rosen




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