Classical Music: Composer ranks Beatles up with best in classics

What: Abbey Road in Concert, with Christopher Donison, piano
When/where: Tuesday, Dec. 11, 7 p.m., Victoria International Marina (1 Cooperage Pl.)
Tickets: $40, students $20. Call 855-842-7575 or 250-888-7772; online at ticketrocket.co

And so we are in the thick of the Christmas-music season. This coming weekend alone, the Victoria Symphony will give three performances of its Christmas Pops program (victoriasymphony.ca), the DieMahler Chamber Music Series will offer its own pops concert (diemahlerenterprises.com) in Oak Bay and the 40th annual Tuba Christmas will take place in Market Square (finearts.uvic.ca/music/calendar).

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There is still some defiantly un-Christmasy music to recommend, however, including an event next Tuesday that might seem out of place on the classical-music calendar: a concert performance of the Beatles’ 1969 album Abbey Road — the one with the iconic cover photo showing the four lads traversing the crosswalk outside the EMI recording studio on that street. It was the last album the band recorded (though the second-last to be released), and included such hit songs as Come Together, Something, Octopus’s Garden and Here Comes the Sun.

The entire album, running about 45 minutes, will be performed in a solo-piano transcription by Christopher Donison, the local musical Renaissance man who is a composer, arranger, librettist, conductor, lecturer, inventor, impresario and administrator as well as an accomplished pianist.

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The Beatles' Abbey Road album features hits such as Something and Here Comes the Sun.

The Abbey Road project was inspired by a question: Who, two centuries hence, is likely to be considered the Mozart of our era, to stand the test of time as a real composer in the classical sense? Donison, who has very broad musical tastes, including an unusually discerning and passionate appreciation of pop music, believes that posterity might well consider the Beatles to be that late-20th-century Mozart, and he is offering up Abbey Road next Tuesday as Exhibit A.

Abbey Road is one of those late Beatles albums that is impressively wide-ranging not just in terms of the musical idioms it embraces, but in terms of sheer sound. On this album we hear, in addition to the voices, guitars and pianos both acoustic and electric, organ, harmonium, harpsichord, percussion, orchestral instruments, Moog synthesizer, an anvil, wind chimes and sound effects (including handclapping and electronically generated white noise), all plentifully manipulated electronically.

Dropping the voices and lyrics and playing this music on a piano might seem willfully perverse, but Donison is seeking not just to offer a fresh take on familiar repertoire but to make a serious case for the Beatles as composers. He stresses that he will not be offering embellished hotel-lobby “arrangements” of the songs, but presenting the music as though it were a piano sonata, stripping it to its essence (melody, harmony, rhythm, form) in order to set in high relief its compositional virtues, its universality, its classical bona fides.

As he puts it: “When the tide goes out we can see who has no bathing suit on.”

Donison previewed the complete Abbey Road at a private gathering on Nov. 27, for a small audience that included your humble narrator. One member of that audience (try to guess which one) arrived harbouring views on the Beatles that were something less than idolatrous but came away convinced of the effectiveness (both musical and didactic) of Donison’s project.

That the music had a bathing suit on could not be denied.

Next Tuesday’s performance will actually be not quite so austere as a piano sonata; there will be a visual element, too.

Floating above the piano will be a chandelier run by Aurora, a “unique plug-and-play technology that transforms traditional lighting displays into interactive experiences,” recently developed by a local company, Limbic Media. Aurora, “the world’s first Artificially Intelligent lighting system,” which uses algorithms “to map sound to lighting,” will respond to Donison’s playing to create a corresponding light display.

The concert is being put on at Victoria International Marina, the luxury-yacht facility that opened this summer in Vic West. Donison will perform in the marina’s Waterfront Parlour, whose large glass windows offer a spectacular view of the middle harbour. (Tickets are limited to about 150.)

This event is being given under the auspices of Music by the Sea, the annual summer classical-and-jazz festival in Bamfield, which Donison launched in 2006. It will be festival’s first concert in Victoria that is not being promoted as a fundraiser, and more such MBTS concerts here could follow.

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