The Beatles stopped touring in 1966 when they began writing music that was too sophisticated for the sound equipment of the times. They never performed “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Magical Mystery Tour” or other late-career albums in front of audiences, because the demands of the music outpaced the capacity of the gear.
That makes this weekend’s performances by the Portland Symphony Orchestra Pops of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” an unusual opportunity. This year is the 50th anniversary of the record. “The chance to hear ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ live is something few people ever get to hear,” said Joe Boucher, the PSO’s concert manager and an ardent Beatles fan. “They never really played it themselves, so it’s kind of an incredible experience.”
The orchestra will be lead by guest conductor Jeffrey Reed, who specializes in staging rock music from the past for orchestras. Last January, Reed celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” with the PSO.
The appeal of these shows, he said, is the music and nostalgia. “We help transport people back to earlier times, which are usually happier times,” said Reed, who lives in Kentucky.
And he doesn’t have to rely on costumes and wigs to achieve that.
“I don’t want to take anything away from the tribute bands. There are many great Beatles’ tribute bands out there,” he said. “But dressing up is a distraction. We don’t wear Beethoven wigs when we perform Beethoven. Why dress up like the Beatles when we play the Beatles?”
Reed conducts an eight-piece band backed by the full orchestra that doesn’t try to recreate anything other than the sound and overall vibe of the record.
“They really do their homework,” Boucher said. “They really get into the nuance of the music, down to the finest details.”
He loved the “Pet Sounds” show last year and appreciated that the band used a theremin on “Good Vibrations.”
The first half is “Sgt. Pepper’s” straight through, start to finish. After an intermission, Reed, the band and orchestra return for a late-Beatles greatest hits set that includes “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Concerts are at 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at Merrill Auditorium.
The Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s” on June 1, 1967, in part as a response to the genius of the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” which preceded it by a year. Paul McCartney cited “Pet Sounds” as a reason the Beatles wanted to create something grandiose. McCartney suggested the record as a way to create an alter-ego for the band, allowing it to experiment more freely.
The band and producer George Martin both asserted creative gusto in the studio, writing and arranging songs with layers of sounds, unusual instrumentation and complex arrangements, as well as an orchestra. Among the songs that came out of the sessions were “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “A Day in the Life.”
The record spent weeks at the top of the charts in England and the United States, won four Grammy Awards and became a cultural touchstone. Rolling Stone magazine put it atop its list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
Andrew Crust, the PSO’s assistant conductor, suggested that “Sgt. Pepper’s” should be required listening in schools, the way classic novels are required reading. He put the Beatles on par with Hemingway and Shakespeare.
“Sgt. Pepper’s was a big part of my upbringing,” said Crust, 29. “I became obsessed with the deeper layers of the Beatles. There are so many orchestral sounds in these albums. ‘She’s Leaving Home’ is certainly one my favorite songs with strings and harp. ‘Within You Without You’ uses a sitar. That really expanded my horizons.”
When not touring with these rock shows, Reed is music director of Orchestra Kentucky and principal guest conductor of Symphony Orchestra Augusta, Georgia.