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Tonight: The Beatles' Classical Mystery Tour at Sony Centre highlights strange ironies of musical world

By John Terauds on February 9, 2012

Classical Mystery Tour

Tonight, the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony joins The Classical Mystery Tour to present 30 classic songs by The Beatles at the Sony Centre (full details here).

The assembled musicians will perform note-for-note re-enactments of symphonic-era music by the British pop band, with the goal of providing the full Beatles concert experience to old fans and people too young to have been able to to experience a live concert by the originals.

Ten days ago, I had a chat with Jim Owen, who portrays John Lennon and plays rhythm guitar and piano with the Tour, which he helped set up 16 years ago. That wasn’t his first Beatles tribute project; he has lived with the music of the Fab Four for nearly a quarter century. (You can find more details about the project and the musicians here.)

I expected Owen to be secretly (if not openly) yearning for an artistic stretch, or admit to clandestine fiddling with the original orchestrations to spice things up, or to have other, completely different projects on the side.

But the person I encountered on the phone is a dead-earnest disciple, seemingly happy to recreate the same music week after week, year after year. He says the Classical Mystery Tour is so busy that there is no time for other projects.

He also said that there is no way he or the other band members would even think of tinkering with the Beatles’ orchestrations, which were transcribed by ear from the original LPs by conductor Martin Herman.

The whole experience is supposed to be authentic.

Since Owen began his musical life with traditional, classical solo piano, I couldn’t help myself and said how this flies in the face of the practices I’m familiar with, where artists strive to put their individual stamp on each performance, to help keep the concert a lively art.

The proto-John Lennon replied that his piano teachers insisted, and he firmly believes, that the performer needs to be absolutely faithful to the score and to the composer.

I’ve been strangely stymied with these weirdly petrified nuggets of what is authenticity and what it means to give a live performance rattling around in my brain for 10 days, because these issues come straight from the core of our relationship to music as listeners and audiences.

It’s been written many times before how recordings have added a sense of definitiveness to the music we listen to, rather than enjoying the spontaneiety and unpredictability of the live concert, especially with the classics, be they Beethoven or the Beatles.

We should probably add the element of familiarity into the mix, as well. We surround ourselves with music all day and, for some, all night. Most of it surrounds us with the ease and comfort of the known, like a security blanket, sparing us from the scariness of uncertain jobs, noisome co-workers, economic turmoil, slow traffic and demanding family members.

So we get, and encourage, the Classical Mystery Tour as well as symphony seasons brimming with Beethoven, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. It’s great music that deserves to be performed, heard and appreciated. But shouldn’t we strive for something a bit more challenging?

The Classical Mystery Tour, in other words, says a lot more about our society and culture than about the people performing in it.

I asked Owen if the surviving Beatles have ever shown up at one of the Mystery Tour concerts. “Not that I know of,” he replied.

John Terauds

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