So we don’t do weddings, funerals, or rock concerts, but 24 hours after the attacks in Paris we needed a break, as did a roomful of folks of a certain age, and a long-anticipated Stewart Theatre concert by Toronto's Art of Time Ensemble proved to be just what the doctor ordered. The program consisted of a revival of the Beatles' 1967 classic, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, done up by four remarkable vocalists backed by a superior chamber music ensemble consisting of a dozen rock-solid (no pun intended) mostly classical musicians. The wildly innovative artistic director is pianist Andrew Burashko, whose previous undertakings have ranged from Schubert to Lou Reed to a reconstruction of War of the Worlds, the depth of which repertoire makes one wonder out loud "Where have these folks been till now?"
By the time of Sgt. Pepper, one of the most remarkable recordings of all time, the Beatles had several major problems, one of which was that their music had become so over-produced that it was basically impossible to do album tours anymore. The arrangements* played by Art of Time managed to convey the spirit and intent of the originals at tolerable volume and with parallel depths of subtlety and nuance. Seven strings (two each violins, violas, and cellos, and a single bass) plus piano (Burashko), guitar (Rob Pitch), trumpet (Larry Larson), reeds (John Johnson), and percussion (Rick Sacks) backed with remarkable success the vocal quartet (in order of appearance, Craig Northey, Steve Page, Glen Phillips, and Andy Maize).
The trumpet and reed guys were spectacular throughout. The vocalists often sounded uncannily like the original Fab Four folks, based on memories of frequent playings of the classic album in its various releases over the years.
Bios were included in the generous program booklet; these revealed the distinguished backgrounds of all the participants in this endeavor, which tapped work, variously, in The Odds, Barenaked Ladies, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Skydiggers, the Toronto Symphony, the Canadian Opera Company, and more.
The whole lot was amplified, but with discretion, and mixed and matched with true artistic skill by knob-fiddler-in-chief Earl McCluskie.
The show began and ended with tunes not in the original album (but composed for it) – "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Lane" (released as singles; details are here), plus, in the grand finale, Abbey Road's "Oh Darling, Please Believe Me" and "All You Need Is Love," best known in its Magical Mystery Tour incarnation – which served as the evening's principal tribute to the tragic events in France and more (since, quite beyond "Love, love, love," it begins with a quote from "The Marseillaise").
The only significant omission – and I'm not really sure how significant it is – was the bit of garbled chatter from the very last part of the roll-out groove at the end of side 2 of the Lp, following "A Day in the Life" (captured on the CD at about 21 seconds).
The revamped theatre looks good and sounded (on this occasion) remarkably fine. It is of course a good deal less "new" than the rest of the rebuilt Talley Student Center, and it's still precisely where it was before the renovations were begun (!), although getting there will take some of us (of certain ages…) a while to figure out.
The presenter was the rechristened NC State LIVE, formerly NCSU Center Stage. We'll figure that out in due course, too.
Meanwhile those who were there for this great Beatles tribute know how powerfully effective and – at times – deeply moving it often was.
*Some may have recalled the impact of The Baroque Beatles Book, Joshua Rifkin's 1965 riff on the whole Beatles phenomenon. These Pepper arrangements did that earlier romp one better since the new garb for the songs seemed even more in keeping with the tunes' musical and emotional content.