Sir Paul McCartney’s Ecce Cor Meum is an oratorio written in honor of the life of his late wife Linda. The Asheville Choral Society presented the work, assisted by soprano soloist Anne O’Byrne, the Celebration Singers of Asheville (a children’s chorus), and an orchestra of 30 professional musicians, all directed by Music Director Lenora Thom. Her skilful preparation and authoritative conducting, using crisp baton movements and evocative left hand signals, marshaled the musicians into a performance showing few deficiencies. This allowed us to experience and judge this ambitious work during what was only its third performance in the United States and sixth on this continent.

Oxford University’s Magdalene Choir and Kings College boys, choir along with the Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, presented the world premiere on November 3, 2006, in London’s Royal Albert Hall. A best-selling CD was made from this performance. Eleven days later, the work was performed at Carnegie Hall in New York. The Washington National Cathedral gave the second American performance in October 2007. Performances in London, Toronto, and St. Catharines, Ontario, occurred in November 2007. With such a limited performance history, it is inevitable that this review is about the work as well as the performance.

Roughly an hour in length, Ecce Cor Meum is divided into four sections plus a central interlude. Section titles are “Spiritus,” “Gratia,” “Lament,” “Musica,” and “Ecce Cor Meum.” Other than a dozen words of Latin, the text is English. It is easy to criticize the text as bad poetry with simplistic rhymes. But the words of “Eleanor Rigby” are bad poetry if you separate them from the Doric Mode music that accompanies those words. The text of Ecce Cor Meum is meant to be sung, not spoken.

There were passages where McCartney tried too hard to “sound classical,” especially in the “Spiritus” and the “Gratia,” which were the weaker movements. The Interlude, subtitled “Lament,” features oboe* and chorus vocalizing, without words, and is very effective.

One English reviewer panned the third section “Musica,” but I disagree strongly. The children sing a beautiful passage (“Behold this heart of mine; see the sun within it shine”), followed by the solo soprano and then the adult choir (singing, “When I feel real joy … it brings a special glow”). Syncopation invokes an image of the world with a repeated passage, “Notice how gently we spin, Here on the skin of a sphere.”

The strongest section is the last, “Ecce Cor Meum.” A dramatic declaration that “Music will show you my heart” leads to a choral passage accompanied by some jazzy riffs for violin and violas above plucked bass viol. An instrumental passage follows, using organ and piccolo trumpets, and finally the words, “Music will show you my heart, ‘Ecce cor meum’ — behold my heart.”

McCartney held a “tryout” performance in November 2001. He learned then that he needed some major revisions, especially in his use of the treble choir. (Children do not have the stamina of adult singers, and he drastically reduced his demands on them.) My personal belief is that Ecce Cor Meum is still a flawed work, but it is far from a failure. The first two sections could use some revision, and I hope that McCartney will look afresh at them. His classical composing is enriched when he lets loose some of that old Beatles magic, as he does in the finale. He is less successful when he self-consciously tries to sound like Handel.

It is unfortunate that Asheville does not have a male treble choir, which the work calls for. The children (four boys, a dozen girls) did a fine job, but the tonal quality of boys’ voices is different from that of girls. The portable organ did not have the presence that a church pipe organ would have provided. There were a few instrumental entries that seemed in error. But the chorus was exemplary, and those of us in the Diana Wortham Theatre saw and heard a very good performance of an important work.

*Edited, corrected 10/15/08.