Review: Beach Boys with the Hong Kong Philharmonic - Love is all around

Combination of orchestra and band worked well on ballads but also on rock songs from the ’60s - a reminder that Brian Wilson’s inspiration was Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ arrangements

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2016, 1:04pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 March, 2016, 10:23pm

It can’t be easy singing When I Grow Up To Be A Man with a straight face three days after your 75th birthday, but Mike Love - who co-wrote the song in 1964 with his cousin Brian Wilson - managed it with aplomb.

Last time he and fellow long-serving Beach Boy Bruce Johnston played Hong Kong was in 2012, with a line-up featuring all the surviving members from the band’s 1960s heyday, assembled in celebration of their 50th anniversary. This time we got the stripped-down regular touring configuration in which Brian Wilson, who wrote almost all of the band’s most memorable music, does not feature.

I suspect, though, that it generally does better justice to his songs, particularly when they play with symphony orchestra support, as they did for two nights here with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra.

Apart from Johnston and Love, the band comprised guitarist and musical director Scott Totten, bassist Brian Eichenberger, keyboard player Timothy Bonhomme, drummer John Cowsill and guitarist Jeff Foskett. All except Bonhomme contributed lead as well as backing vocals, and all except Eichenberger participated at various points in the 2012 reunion tour.

For many years Foskett has been the Brian Wilson touring band’s musical director. They all know the songs backwards, and although the Hong Kong Phil, conducted by Gerard Salonga, can’t have had much rehearsal with them, they sounded as though they did too.

The orchestra performed two pieces without the band, an overture medley of Beach Boys hits, and an arrangement of In My Room, which opened the second half of the concert and earned them a standing ovation. They also appeared on every other song, except for the band’s first single, Surfin’.

It was no surprise that the combination of band and orchestra worked well on the ballads, but more surprisingly the more sophisticated arrangements of the basic surf-and- hot-rod rock songs from the Beach Boys’ early repertoire were also effective.

Perhaps that shouldn’t have been surprising. Wilson’s great inspiration as a record producer was Phil Spector and his “wall of sound”, and it was interesting to hear songs which were recorded with more sparse instrumentation finally get that treatment.

READ MORE: Beach Boys’ Mike Love on life, loves and playing with the Hong Kong Philharmonic

The band/orchestra combination really came into its own after the intermission on the songs from the 1966 Pet Sounds album – Sloop John. B, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Caroline No, and God Only Knows. You Still Believe In Me, from the same album, was a highlight of the first half.

The strings and brass added to the dramatic sweep of some of the more anthemic songs, but there were subtler touches as well, particularly from the harp on several songs, and Johnston’s Disney Girls benefitted from the woodwinds.

During the anniversary tour the band played God Only Knows to a click track, synchronised with the late Carl Wilson’s recorded lead vocal, and this idea was retained for these shows.

The video show playing on the screen above the band and orchestra was unashamedly nostalgic, and only one relatively new song was performed, Pisces Brothers, Love’s tribute to his friend and fellow transcendental meditation advocate George Harrison.

Achieving a good sound balance between the orchestra and the band’s electrically amplified instruments in the cavernous Queen Elizabeth Stadium cannot have been easy. The sound was good where I was sitting, in front of the stage, but I talked to people who were seated at either side during the intermission, and there the separation was apparently less distinct.

This version of the Beach Boys is unabashedly its own tribute band, but the orchestral arrangements added a refreshingly different dimension to the songs, and after a final encore of Fun Fun Fun a happy audience filed out having had just that.

The Beach Boys, Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Queen Elizabeth Stadium. Reviewed: March 18