Paul McCartney's Classical Music and Sir Paul, the Sun King
PAUL MCCARTNEY is one of the most important figures of 20th-century music.
Therein lies the dilemma.
Can the 69-year-old former Beatle pull off writing a ballet? Will he break new ground? How will this addition to his repertoire affect his standing in music history?
Those were the questions looming in the air on September 22nd as Sir Paul debuted his most recent classical composition, “Ocean’s Kingdom”, as part of New York City Ballet’s Fall Gala performance at Lincoln Centre.
There was some excitement when the curtain lifted and Sara Mearns (“Princess Honorata”), a sumptuous NYCB principal, floated in front of a tourmaline-coloured backdrop wearing a gauzy seafoam creation courtesy of Sir Paul’s daughter Stella. The textures of the sheer fabrics, the undulating light from the video projections, the dancer’s eloquent arm extensions and the lush strings of the NYCB Orchestra spun the elder McCartney’s signature three-note melody into a fleeting moment of ballet-making magic. It wasn’t quite rapturous, but definitively hummable—and a great start.
Glimpses of that synergy flashed intermittently over the next 50 minutes, but for the most part the elements of “Ocean’s Kingdom” were disjointed, yielding sighs of disappointment at what was expected to be a triumph in the worlds of music, fashion and dance.
NYCB is known for its unadorned stage design, but the choreography by Peter Martins and the good-versus-evil dynamic of Sir Paul’s libretto (complete with King Ocean, Prince Stone and the complexities of their entourages) could have benefitted from a set that helped tell this earth/water love story more clearly. Conversely, the dramatic shafts of light that dominated the third movement’s prison scene hinted at the raw power an overall minimalist presentation might have harnessed.
Stella McCartney’s costumes ran the gamut from Mary Quant-mod water maidens to a fantastically tattooed terra gang that recalled the evil monkeys in The Wizard of Oz. Her contributions revealed a street-smart slouch that, though lost on the mostly blue-blood patrons in the David H. Koch Theater that night, tiptoed into new-ish territory her father and Mr Martins never tread.
“Ocean’s Kingdom” sometimes played out like a generation clash among its collaborators, but it was Sir Paul’s score—however traditional—that never lost its rhythmic centre or its joyful vitality: harp, flute, violin, percussion, each had moments in the sun.
The tempo changes and mood shifts of “Ocean’s Kingdom” brought Bernstein, Copland and Gershwin to mind, and kudos to John Wilson and Andrew Cottee for assisting Sir Paul with the arrangements and orchestration. In introductions by Faycal Karoui, the music director at NYCB, and Mr Martins, Sir Paul’s music was also compared with that of the Romantic-era composer Maurice Ravel. The association might seem far-fetched, but it’s interesting to note that Ravel gave the American premiere of his most famous work, Bolero (also composed for ballet), a mere 35 years before a quartet of Liverpudlian mop-toppers shook these shores with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Paul McCartney may not have the conservatory credentials or technical mastery of the great modern composers, but the strength of his simple tunes could merit entrance into their ranks. After meandering through sweeping romanticism, boozy swing and tat-tat beats, the one surprise in “Ocean’s Kingdom” turned out to be its final note: a crisp cymbal crash that served as the exclamation point to the ballet’s predictably happy ending—and as a musical wink from the smiling songwriter on the front row of the first ring.
This story was published by The Economist.
Photo: Press image courtesy of New York City Ballet
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