Say "Paul McCartney" and what's the first name that comes to mind?
The correct answer nowadays no longer need be John Lennon. It could be Carl Davis -- the Brooklyn-born, London-residing composer-conductor, who happens to be conducting the Baltimore Symphony today through Saturday in a mostly Gershwin concert in Meyerhoff Hall.
The 55-year-old Davis is a well-known film and TV composer -- his work includes the scores of such films as "The French Lieutenant's Woman" and he has won several Emmys -- but he is now best known as the co-composer of what is called "Paul McCartney's Liverpool Oratorio." Broadcast nationally last fall, a recording of the work is already one of the best-selling classical LPs of all time (sales are projected to pass 1 million).
It was the first time that McCartney had ever written a symphonic work. The two-year stretch, beginning in 1989, over which the "Liverpool Oratorio" was composed also meant that it was the first extensive collaboration for McCartney -- other than those with his wife, Linda -- since his partnership with Lennon dissolved in 1970.
"He loves collaboration, he thrives on it," Davis says of his partner. "I realized how much courage it took for him to have left the Beatles."
When the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Society invited him and McCartney -- Liverpool's most famous living native son -- to collaborate on a piece for their 150th birthday, Davis says he thought that "if we can just get two or three tunes that were as good as those in the Beatles' songs we'd be doing mankind a great service." His only reservation was that McCartney could not read music and did not, therefore, know how to use musical notation.
As it turned out, his fears were groundless. Though McCartney had never worked on anything so extensive -- the oratorio is more than 80 minutes long -- back in his Beatles' days he had worked with his producer, George Martin, using string quartets, French horns and trumpets.
"Paul worked with me exactly the way he had worked with George," Davis says. "He'd sit on the piano bench beside me, singing to me what he wanted. I'd play back what I heard and then -- after we traded ideas back and forth -- I'd transcribe it. But he listens to a lot of classical music and he had plenty of ideas on orchestration. I'd say, 'OK, who's playing -- is it the oboe and strings or the clarinet?' We developed a quick and easy communication."
Although Davis originally proposed writing a Requiem to McCartney, he says his collaborator wisely argued for an oratorio -- because the latter genre better suited his optimistic nature which did not want to dwell on death and also because it was better suited to his musical gifts.
"A Requiem has a set form, but an oratorio is looser -- it can be any non-dramatic work with a religious theme," Davis says.
The oratorio is about the birth of a boy in the wartime blitz, his schooling, the death of his father, his falling in love and marriage, his marital difficulties and their resolution with the birth of a child.
"We came up with the first parts of the structure together," Davis says, "the ideas about marriage and family were Paul's."
Although Davis is a famous figure in the world of film and TV music -- if you regularly watch public television's "Masterpiece Theatre," then you've almost certainly heard a good deal of his music -- before the oratorio, his name was hardly a household word.
"The thing about writing film music is that you're a back room boy," he says with a chuckle. "The names go by at the end of the film and no one sees you. But all that changed with "Liverpool Oratorio."
When I arrived in New York last fall to do the first American performance, people were stopping me on the street, saying 'aren't you Carl Davis?' "
His collaboration with McCartney will continue, Davis adds.
"I really enjoy working with him -- he's decent and generous -- and we've already scored a film about his wife Linda's horse farm. I know how much he'd like to do another big project and we're just waiting for the right opportunity."