The California Philharmonic opened its 2015 season last weekend with a truly up-tempo afternoon, pairing Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, which conductor Victor Vener called “the apotheosis of the dance,” with the music of the Beatles. The Sunday afternoon performance at Disney Hall – as usual, an encore of the program from Saturday night’s show at Santa Anita Racetrack – attracted a diverse audience, many of whom professed it to be their first time in front of a live orchestra.
Under Vener’s direction, the Cal Phil’s mission is to bring live classical music to the people of LA in appealing, bite-sized chunks, usually in the company of more modern popular music that deserves a concert setting. As a result, in between movements, you may get to find out which part of the auditorium can yell the loudest. It’s a deliberately informal atmosphere compared to your typical orchestra concert. But the music is beautifully performed, and the physicality of Beethoven’s relentlessly uptempo 7th was powerfully felt. At its conclusion, Vener asked with a sneer “Anyone finds that light, relaxing entertainment, you must be on serious drugs.” Lay off the brown acid, kiddies, it makes you think Beethoven is relaxing.
For the latter half, the Phil was joined by Philadelphia tribute band Beatlemania Now, who arrived decked out in Sgt. Pepper suits that appeared to have been purchased from a Halloween store. They took a minute to find their groove, adjusting their stage volume for the resonant hall. But as they found their way, playing through Beatles classics with just-like-the-record arrangements provided by the orchestra, faces around the room began to light up. There is an undeniable magic, hearing that pocket-trumpet solo from “Penny Lane” played triumphantly, live in the room with you, or those queasy strings from “I Am the Walrus”.
Beatlemania Now occasionally suffered from the common tribute-band problem of having the details on-the-nose while missing something essential. The “John” guy was too hesitant, backing away from the line about yellow matter custard dripping from a dead dog’s eye, like he was afraid of offending the children present, God forbid. But their “Paul” was born to play that role, re-creating McCartney’s cheerful onstage energy as well as his notes and haircut. His solo turn on “For No One” backed by a French horn player was an unexpected tender moment. The orchestration, transcribed by Cal Phil’s lead trumpet player, was impeccable throughout. Is love all you need? With that and a ripping horn and string section behind you, you can go a long way.