Ocean’s Kingdom is Paul McCartney’s fourth large-scale classical composition. Paul McCartney’s Liverpool Oratorio, released in 1991, was a collaboration with Carl Davis. That 97-minute piece is arguably the most approachable of his works for non-classical music listeners. With each of its eight movements broken down into easily digestible “songs,” the oratorio bears many more obvious hallmarks of McCartney’s pop style than the works that followed. 1997’s Standing Stone, though accompanied by a lengthy original poem, is free of lyrics. “Poppy” melodies are largely absent. Although 2006’s Ecce Cor Meum was a return to the oratorio form, it also contains far fewer pop-type melodies.
There are two distinctly different audiences for McCartney’s classical music. There are those who normally wouldn’t listen to classical, but are interested in anything McCartney does. I would argue that is the larger audience (which I am part of). Then there are the classical aficionados who skeptically (or cynically) approach McCartney’s orchestral works with a more critical eye. I don’t blame them. McCartney seems quite unconcerned by his lack of musical training. He boasts of his inability to read sheet music. After 20 years of composing classical music (to say nothing of his decades of pop experience before that), he surely could’ve found time to learn at least some music theory. That sort of thing might even improve his classical works and lessen the brickbats hurled his way with each release.
Ocean’s Kingdom is a very ambitious piece. Unlike his other classical compositions, this piece is meant to accompany the ballet’s choreography. Together they tell the story. Strictly taken as a listening experience, this is much like hearing a film score without having seen the movie. Taken as a purely sonic experience, the 56 minutes of music are pleasant and occasionally memorable. Again, anyone with a serious appreciation for classical music is bound to listen with a more discerning ear.
The first movement, “Ocean’s Kingdom,” builds somewhat languidly from a very simple theme. At roughly the halfway point, the repetitive piece springs dramatically to life. The mid-section contains some effectively aggressive percussion. The excitement doesn’t last, as the final few minutes of the opening movement drift back to same three-note phrase that opened the piece. It’s not unpleasant but it casts a rather drowsy atmosphere.
Things start looking up with the second movement, “Hall of Dance.” At 16 minutes, this is the longest movement and thankfully the most varied and tuneful. Fans of McCartney the pop songwriter will clearly recognize his signature right from the outset. Jaunty and melodic, the first few minutes contain the hookiest passages that are most likely to linger in the mind. Alternating between menacing passages using the force of the full orchestra and quieter, lyrical sections, “Hall of Dance” is easily the go-to track if you’re curious.
The third movement, “Imprisonment,” contains some attractive little snippets, but overall sounds a bit disorganized. Perhaps when heard while watching the choreography the piece might feel more cohesive. Now and again during its 13-minute duration, a McCartney-esque flourish rises out of this murkiest of tracks. The same can be said of the first half of “Moonrise,” the fourth and final movement. But somewhere around the halfway point, “Moonrise” springs to life as it brings the score to a rousing climax. The final minutes rival the best parts of “Hall of Dance” as the most distinctive and emotionally engaging sections of the score.
Here’s a little tip: iTunes has a “bonus track version” available. In addition to the full studio album performed by The London Classical Orchestra (conducted by John Wilson), you get a live performance of the entire score performed by The New York City Ballet Orchestra (conducted by Faycal Karoui). Casual McCartney fans might want to save their money for the next round of deluxe reissues in his Archive Collection series.