Classical music met rock ’n’ roll in 1965 when a string quartet came to the Abbey Road studios to join Paul McCartney and his acoustic guitar for a little ditty called “Yesterday.” For the rest of the Beatles’ recording career, London’s best classical session musicians were regular participants in the band’s songs.
On Saturday at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, that collaboration was celebrated and re-created when the Redwood Symphony, our local community orchestra, joined the White Album Ensemble, a Santa Cruz-based Beatles tribute group specializing in performing live the later songs that the Beatles never performed live themselves, in “Yesterday” and a full two dozen of its successors — Beatles songs all including orchestral instruments.
The collaboration worked, because the White Album Ensemble takes a classical-oriented approach to playing Beatles covers — as opposed to a jazz-oriented approach, in which these things matter less. In their aesthetic, what you sound like is less important than reproducing the rhythm and timing of the original. Aside from being a little rhythmically free in a few of their vocal interpretations, the White Album Ensemble has the rhythm and timing of the Beatles absolutely nailed down and countersunk. After Redwood Symphony conductor Eric Kujawsky would lean over to coordinate opening beats with White Album drummer Trey Sabatelli, seated in front of him, everything would happen exactly when it was supposed to.
You can thank Barry Phillips of the White Album Ensemble for so accurately transcribing the Beatles records into written music that orchestral musicians could play, and the Redwood Symphony and the eight players in the ensemble for their performance. From the multiple keyboardists and guitarists — special note for virtuosity to lead guitarist Stephen Krilanovich — to the singers, the band had flair. Omar Spence’s voice is a particularly good replica of John Lennon’s. Richard Bryant did Paul’s songs — there were a lot of those — and Ken Kraft stood in for both George and Ringo.
Bryant found coordinating timing with the orchestra something of a challenge in “Yesterday” and “Eleanor Rigby,” songs outside of the ensemble’s normal repertoire. His and Kraft’s voices differ more from the originals, but they did well, whooping up the audience in “I Am the Walrus,” for instance, and trying to make a singalong out of “Hello Goodbye.” Needless to say, there was no trouble making a singalong out of the first encore, “Hey Jude.”
And the orchestra behind them sounded pretty neat, too. Amplified, the balance was good. Both listening and watching the musicians, it became clear, for instance, just how much the orchestral strings contribute to the sound even of an uncompromising rock song like “I Am the Walrus.” Which was played, by the way, immediately following “Strawberry Fields,” of which it’s virtually a photocopy, so the program ordering was rather daring too.
I particularly liked the brass, rather wild and rough in songs like “All You Need is Love” and “Got To Get You Into My Life,” but still on target, contributing to the fun of the concert. Stephen Ruppenthal ran out to the end of his tether reproducing the famous trumpet solo in “Penny Lane.” It was awesome when he got through it successfully. The clarinet section in “When I’m Sixty-Four” was a hoot also.
We got bits of “Revolver” and the White Album, a good chunk of “Abbey Road” including the last half of its medley, two songs from “Let It Be” (with the orchestra playing Phil Spector’s overdubs without the gooey saturation on the record), John’s solo “Imagine” and Paul’s big production number “Live and Let Die,” over half of the “Magical Mystery Tour” album and a good chunk of “Sgt. Pepper” ending with the closing three songs running together. The famous chaotic orchestral crescendos that punctuate “A Day in the Life” were a treat to hear live. In fact, this whole concert was a treat to hear live.