Here are two things I could not have predicted in June 1967, when I slit open the shrink wrap on my monaural copy of the Beatles’ newly released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, pulled the pink and white liner out of an exceptionally colorful jacket (covered as it was with famous faces and the Beatles’ name in red flowers) and carefully placed the 12-inch vinyl LP on the turntable:

One was that nearly 50 years later, I would hear a symphony orchestra play it in full, from start to finish. The other was that recreational marijuana, a substance so crucial to the creation of this album, would be legal – not that you could smoke it at Merrill Auditorium on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, when Jeffrey Reed led the Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops in a presentation of the album, plus another 11 Beatles tunes. For me, the performance (I caught the Sunday concert) was a test of sorts, because I love “Sgt. Pepper” – I think of it, along with the rest of the Beatles’ work, as the zenith of Western Civ – but I loathe symphonic pops concerts.

It’s not that I’m a repertory snob – or, maybe I am, from both directions: My classical side finds orchestral pops cheesy, and the part of me that loves rock regards pops concert performances as pathetically defanged misconceptions of what the songwriters and original performers had in mind. I understand the organizational value of these concerts, as necessary cash trawls that support an orchestra’s classical programming, and I’ve heard the argument about how these concerts might lure new listeners to classical music, although having watched such efforts fail to do so for decades, I’m amazed to hear people still seriously making the claim.

Still, I thought that if anything could disabuse me of my feeling that orchestral pops concerts are artistically useless, it would be a traversal of “Sgt. Pepper.” Reed, after all, has become known for his faithful orchestrations. And I expected him to treat this extraordinary album not as a collection of strung-together pop songs, but as the unified artwork the Beatles intended when they sequenced its running order so that the songs flow like symphonic movements, and when they decided to have the disc pressed without visible banding between the songs.

The arrangements were mostly fine, although there were compromises. For George Harrison’s Indian-influenced “Within You Without You,” instead of using Indian instruments, Reed assigned the melody lines originally played on dilrubas (bowed, sitar-like instruments) to the strings, doubled on an electric slide guitar. The droning tamburas here and in “Getting Better” must have been programmed into an electronic keyboard, as were the backwards calliope sounds on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite.”

Reed provided subtle orchestral texturing to the songs that were not orchestrated on the original. But in “A Day in the Life,” where the orchestra is crucial, the two chaotic rising crescendos sounded oddly tame. And Reed gave the final, sustained E minor chord – played on massed (overdubbed) pianos on the album – to the orchestra, and cut it off quickly rather than allowing a long fade.


Otherwise, the playing was generally on point, if sometimes a bit tepid, in the way that orchestral pops concerts tend to be. The rock ensemble that joined the orchestra – guitarists John McCracken and Bhrett Puckett, bassist Dave Horovitz, and drummer Webb Hendrix, most of whom also sang, and vocalists Kevin Snyder and Jon Crosby – clearly knew the parts, down to the harmonies in the backing vocals, and reproduced them persuasively.

But Reed’s decision to interrupt the work’s flow with between-songs chatter was intensely disappointing, unconscionable, even. Some of his interruptions were band introductions. Some was inane filler (”I think you’ll remember this one”). And some was misinformation.

Reed said, for example, that the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, did all their arranging. Not really. When their songs used straight rock instrumentation, he made suggestions, especially in the early years, but the arrangements were their own. As for orchestral arrangements, two of the songs Reed performed were not arranged by Martin: Mike Leander wrote the orchestral score for “She’s Leaving Home,” and Richard Hewson scored “The Long and Winding Road,” one of the mostly post-“Pepper” songs on the second half of the program.

What Reed’s persistent commenting told the audience was that “Sgt. Pepper” really is just another pop album – no need to treat it with the respect you would accord a Schubert song cycle, or a Mahler symphony, or for that matter, the respect you would give the album if you played it at home.

If chit-chat is an absolutely necessary component of a pops concert, it would have made better sense to reverse the order of the program, playing the hits miscellany on the first half, and taking that opportunity to introduce the band and talk about the songs – and then presenting “Sgt. Pepper,” intact and uninterrupted, after the intermission.

Reed may have a chance to correct this egregious lack of taste. While introducing a lovely performance of Harrison’s “Here Comes the Sun,” he said that he was preparing a program that would include the full “Abbey Road” album, for its 50th anniversary, in 2019.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He has written two books about the Beatles, “The Beatles: From the Cavern to the Rooftop” and “Got That Something: How The Beatles’ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ Changed Everything.” He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: kozinn

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