The Classical Mystery Tour

This weekend, the Classical Mystery Tour rolled up to the Heinz Hall stage to play with the PSO.  The Tour’s website says that:

Classical Mystery Tour is more than just a rock concert.  The full show presents some 30 Beatles tunes sung, played, and performed exactly as they were written.  Hear “Penny Lane” with a live trumpet section; experience the beauty of “Yesterday” with an acoustic guitar and string quartet; enjoy the rock/classical blend on the hard edged “I Am the Walrus.”  From early Beatles music on through the solo years, Classical Mystery Tour is the best of The Beatles like you’ve never heard them: totally live.

The band itself is a Beatles Tribute Band called Twist and Shout and while it certainly was a fun concert (though I suspect Mark Kenny of the Trib might slightly disagree) it does raise some very interesting questions about the nature of authenticity in musical performance.

Let me explain what I mean.

In the early part of the previous century, Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977)  joined a number of  other composers/conductors and transcribed some keyboard works of JS Bach (1685 – 1750) for symphonic use.  By the time he died, Stokowski transcribed 40.  I have to say, though, that it’s rather ironic, in this discussion of musical authenticity, that Stokowski’s most famous  Bach transcription (that of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565), is one piece of Bach’s whose musical attribution has actually been questioned.  But that’s a story for another day.

While the transcriptions certainly introduced Bach to a greater audience than was otherwise possible, any assertion that the transcriptions, with their swooning strings, swelling dynamics and elastic tempi, were an authentic reading of Bach would be, to say the least, a stretch.

So what would be a more authentic performance of Bach?  Or, for that matter, any non-contemporary composer?

For that, the Early Music enthusiasts had an answer.  They dutifully studied how “old” music was performed and sought to recreate as many of those details as possible;  the instruments, the tuning systems, the musical options available to musicians back then and so on.  But whereas a historically informed performance could deliver a performance that was, perhaps, more historically accurate – it’s a different question as to whether that performance would be experienced in any way that resembled the experiences of that piece’s earliest audiences.  To settle this, we’d have to decide: what is being recreated?  A performance or the experience of a performance?

And I have no answer to any of those questions.  Sorry.

But they’re worth pondering was being recreated at this Classical Mystery Tour performance when, for example, we see and hear live the “Ringo” singing a song (“Good Night” – from the “White Album”) that was never actually performed live by the real Ringo Starr (aka Richard Starkey).  Or when we hear “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite” performed with a dutifully recreated middle 8 bars – the bars with all those randomly created tape effects.  As with the recording of any piece of electronic music, there really is only one performance – all the others are simply the recording replayed.  On the other hand, when we listen to a recording of a Brandenburg Concerto we’re listening to a recording of a live performance – one of an infinite set of live performances.  The recording can be replayed OR a new live performance can be created (and then recorded, of course).

So what, exactly, was being recreated when the members of Twist and Shout took the stage to perform a song or two from Sgt. Pepper or Magical Mystery Tour?  I am not sure at all.  They were live copies of unique musical phenomena.  That’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around, isn’t it?  And fact that the band was selling CDs of another live performance only makes things worse.  Hahahaha!

A few notes about the concert.

  • Vosburgh nailed the piccolo solo in Penny Lane.  Absolutely nailed it.  I was curious as to which picc he played, the Schilke or the Monke.  And with the wonders of the internets, I was able to email him and ask.  Turns out it was the Monke – the picc he plays when he plays the 2nd Brandenburg.
  • The guy who played Paul McCartney really likes playing Paul McCartney, though he played a Höfner violin bass throughout the show – even on the pieces, late in the Beatles oeuvre, where Paul played a Rickenbacher.
  • It was amazing to hear the crowd singing along with the band.  While the stage was maybe slightly just a tad too over amplified, it was still possible to hear the words coming from the crowd.  Two young women to my right kept up with Ringo on their air drums.
  • They ended the show with two encores, “Hey Jude” and (of course, befitting the name of the band) “Twist and Shout.”

After more than 40 years, it’s still wonderful to know that the music still has the power to bring a few thousand people into Heinz Hall on light up night.

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Nov 18