Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom shot to the top of the classical charts when it was released in early October, and anyone with half a brain knows why. Even Peter Martin, the New York City Ballet’s Master in Chief who commissioned the work, admits that the program’s big draw was hearing what a ballet score composed by an ex-Beatle sounds like. This isn’t a new concern. Paul McCartney has been writing classical music for a while now, and the arrival of Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom shouldn’t catch anybody off guard. A common complaint of the pop/classical crossover phenomenon is that these works often sound like a pop writer’s idea of what classical music should sound like. As harsh a criticism as that might be, McCartney’s love for melody cannot hide inside of a 56-minute, four-movement orchestral work for dance. Then again, sticky melodies are a reliable part of ballet. Why else do we hum tunes from “The Nutcracker” at Christmas time? The same reason we hum “Hey Jude” from time to time: the melody.
Of course, it’s not as black and white as that.
“Ocean’s Kingdom” is a love story set among two diametrically opposed worlds. The civilization under the ocean is “pure” while the surface world is occupied by no-goodniks who pose a constant threat to those living below water (just take Wells’ The Time Machine and flip it). The first movement, titled “Ocean’s Kingdom”, lays the groundwork for these peaceful beings. Somewhere in the second movement, “Hall of Dance”, dancers representing water and air meet and fall in love. Someone is thrown into prison by the third movement, “Imprisonment”. After that, Sir Paul simply tells us, “you’ll have to see whether the couple make it.” The final movement is called “Moonrise”; glean from that what you will.
The purity of this underwater world is captured by a wide, cinematic sound with broad string sweeps and gentle waves that nudge the chords back and forth. The upper register relies mostly on ornamentals, though that’s not to say that it isn’t heavy on melody. It’s just that the melodic motifs are protracted. They definitely come out to play on the second movement, “Hall of Dance”. This portion cycles a two-step figure through a few keys until, without warning, a sleazy ragtime trumpet takes over at the 1:28 mark, clearing the way for wide clarinets and trombone scoops a la “Rhapsody in Blue”. From here on, traditional romantic dance moods reminiscent of “Firebird Suite” take over, giving the listener glimpses of the conflict of a love interest. Just so there’s no mistake, this is the most colorful and varied portion of the suite.
The remainder of Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom is tonally unassuming, taking no great strides to either stir the soul or offend the ear. The “Imprisonment” is appropriately solemn, but it and the following movement are large examples of getting just half the picture. Without the dance visuals, the bulk of Paul McCartney’s Ocean’s Kingdom stands as pleasant and moderately engaging classical music that leans heavily on already established forms. The choreography itself got a lashing from Backstage.com for its perceived laziness and inability to do anything daring. I’m hesitant to throw such criticisms at the music here because Paul McCartney can and will establish a deep emotional connection through his composing. It’s just that these traits are largely outnumbered by stuff that exists to mark time.