John Kraglund • Toronto Globe and Mail • 7 July 1969
There would be no point in pretending it was other than the presence of the famous British rock group, Procol Harum that attracted an audience that overflowed – as much as fire laws permitted – the 2,200 seat capacity of the Festival Theatre yesterday for the opening concert in the Sunday Concert Series. Still, the program was called Bach Rock and Bach must surely have influenced some listeners when they bought their tickets.
Somehow, by the end of the concert, one was left with the impression that rock fans got the best of the deal – despite Procol Harum's flattering borrowings from the old masters, and a number of other composers. Perhaps Festival music director Victor Di Bello saw in this concert a chance to bridge the much talked about generation gap by introducing the squares to what is happening in the pop music field.
He must also have had in mind the possibility of revealing to modern youth that they may miss a great deal if they discount everything from the past. Given half a chance, Bach can be convincing. Unfortunately, in yesterday's opening work that chance was something less than half, for the Festival Orchestra and conductor Lawrence Smith gave the impression they had been previously unacquainted with Bach and especially the Overture to Suite No 4 in D.
Thanks to the sensitive artistry of oboist Ray Still and the reasonably polished, if hardly penetrating interpretation of violinist Charles Libove, Bach's Concerto in C minor for violin and oboe partly rectified the early damage the orchestra – at this stage, apparently short of previous standards – played with precision and thus a fair measure of little-shaded clarity.
Of course the meeting place for the two groups of listeners and performers was the middle section of the programme, in which Procol Harum joined the orchestra, with Smith to serve as conductor of cues from the former to the latter into of the pop group's songs. If the combination did nothing more, it gave a more strongly motivated life to the concert.
Otherwise, A Salty Dog – first of the numbers – was notable only for the musical singing pianist Gary Brooker and the solidity of the string background. In held Was in I, and eighteen-minute work with some fascinating, only partly audible verses by Keith Reid, revealed much more the possibility of this sort of collaboration. As yet, it lacks the sort of freedom that may come when Procol Harum has gained more experience in the field.
Musically, this piece seems typical of these rock performers, in its musical thefts and in the insistence upon clarity, no matter how loud the amplification. One might almost label their music Neo-baroque, for in their approach to the classics they are not so far removed from so-called classical composers of the early 1920s, with their bow to Bach and jazz – approximately as successful in realisation as was the Procol Harum music.
Like most mixtures, one is left wondering whether either of the two components is actually enhanced by the effort to combine them. Certainly, Procol Harum did not seem to change much when it finally appeared on its own. The delay in making electrical hookups was all too much like those that occur in electronic music programs. Most impressive was the playing of lead guitarist Robin Trower, but even that seemed a little too pat in the first selection – Stoke Poges – and a trifle more imaginative, on acoustic guitar, in Homburg, a piece that apparently found most of its inspiration in fragments from Bach preludes and five (or was it four?) finger piano exercises. When the volume was not too overpowering, the attractions were similar to those of most modern music.
More about Procol Harum at Stratford, 1969