Interview for The Telegraph • Thursday, August 11, 2011

Carl Davis recalls collaborating with Paul McCartney on the Liverpool Oratorio

Press interview • Interview of Carl Davis

Album This interview has been made to promote the Liverpool Oratorio Official album.

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I composed the Liverpool Oratorio with Paul McCartney to celebrate the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra’s 150th anniversary. Brian Pidgeon, then the head of the RLPO’s programming, had asked me if I had any ideas for the anniversary. He leapt in the air when I suggested we should compose something with McCartney. The oratorio follows the part autobiographical story of a Liverpool guy – there are ups and downs, a nice romantic theme and some quarrelling.

My first meeting with Paul was at his home and I was very nervous. Minutes after I met him, he asked me which Beatles songs I liked. My mind went blank and I named one – I think it was A Hard Day’s Night – that he hadn’t written. He seemed rather perturbed. But he was intrigued by the project [the Liverpool Oratorio was McCartney’s first classical piece] and we agreed that we were going to work on it as a complete collaboration.

The work evolved over a long time because Paul was touring. Throughout our meetings he was curious about the process, but I felt to some extent he pretended he didn’t know as much as he did. As for singers, he said, ‘Who is the best soprano in the world? Get the best you can.’ So we cast Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She is to my right [out of picture], next to the tenor Jerry Hadley. There is a moment when Kiri has to say, rather than sing, ‘I’m going to have a baby.’ She learnt to do it in a Liverpool accent, which was charming. On Paul’s left is the mezzo-soprano Sally Burgess and the bass-baritone Willard White.

I had never conducted a concert in Liverpool Cathedral before. It was challenging as it has something like a nine-second echo, so we had to build in gaps – a big chord and then a stop – otherwise everything would have overlapped.

Paul is very practical and wanted a film and recording of the premiere made. This needed extra current, but the sound engineer, John Timberley, became bothered by the humming of the generators. He told Paul that if we put bales of hay around the equipment, it would help the noise. Paul snapped his fingers and said, ‘Get hay.’ In an hour or so a lorryload arrived.

When we got to the opening night, after two and a half years of work, with all the world’s press present, I lifted my baton and all the lights blew. I looked up and thought, ‘You have let me down.’ I was horrified and said to the audience, ‘I think we would appreciate performing this work in some light.’ It was restored quickly, but I was scared the mood was broken. I really thought things would fall apart, but happily they didn’t.

After the performance Paul ran down the nave, jumped on the rostrum and grabbed my hand, at which point there was the most startling battery of camera flashes. I knew this photograph was going to go around the world.

Carl Davis


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