On June 28 McCartney did a little something to remedy that childhood slight. With an audience of 2,100 in attendance (paying up to $50 each), he returned to the cathedral for the premiere performance of Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio. Cowritten with American-born composer Carl Davis, 54, the 90-minute work, commissioned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Liverpool's Royal Philharmonic, featured the full orchestra, choirboys, a chorus and a collection of renowned operatic soloists, including soprano Kiri Te Kanawa and tenor Jerry Hadley. The oratorio, which was performed a second time in Liverpool on June 29 and had its London premiere eight days later, was videotaped for a BBC documentary and recorded for a fall release. "I still can't sight-read," McCartney confesses, "but coming back 38 years later to this was, to say the least, a buzz."
Alas, it was also something of a bust. Although the performance drew a seven-minute standing ovation and a rave from the New York Times, Brit critics proved less kind. Liverpool's Daily Post heard "memorable dramatic passages...interspersed with periods of near tedium," while the Times of London carped that "the churchy choral passages and labored orchestral interludes make Brahms's Requiem seem like a hotbed of syncopation."
McCartney and Davis had begun their collaboration two years ago, working primarily in a Sussex studio built in an old windmill near the five-bedroom home overlooking the English Channel where the ex-Beatle and his wife, Linda, live with their children. McCartney, who likened an orchestra to "the ultimate synthesizer," provided most of the oratorio's melodies and the semiautobiographical story, while he and Davis share credit for the orchestration. (Early on, Davis tried to give McCartney a copy of composer Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. "It's too late for that, luv," McCartney had cheerily responded.)
With his first-ever classical work, McCartney did succeed in turning the spotlight on his old hometown once again. "This city's had a lot of hard knocks over the years," he says, "but there's a wonderful basic honesty and goodness about the place." As for those cranky reviewers, no matter. None of them were tougher on him than John Lennon used to be. And as far as McCartney was concerned, Lennon wouldn't have told him to get back to where he once belonged. "I'd like to think he'd have said, 'Great, good on you for doing it, for taking the plunge, risking it,' " says McCartney. "John liked risk."