Monday, November 15, 2010

Shoeless Rufus Sings Sonnets at the Symphony

Last week's strange San Francisco Symphony concerts were highlighted by the appearance of pop star Rufus Wainwright who attracted a noticeably younger, hipper audience than usual to Davies Hall.

The concerts were to have been conducted by Jeffrey Kahane, but he became ill and was replaced by the young English assistant conductor from the London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Francis (above). Francis has made something of a specialty in the last couple of years filling in at the last minute for ailing conductors, usually in obscure music that nobody else knows.

The concert was originally going to start with Ravel's piano concerto with Kahane at the piano, but was replaced by Darius Milhaud's 1923 ballet for chamber orchestra, "La Creation du monde," which is also French and based on American jazz. It's a fun piece but the performance was a bit dull, which was a shame since the music personifies Le Jazz Hot entering the classical bloodstream a year before Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue."

Then it was time for Rufus (above), who was singing his own composition, a suite of "art songs" to five Shakespeare sonnets. Somebody from management on Saturday evening notified us from the stage that the singer/composer did NOT want any applause between songs, which I suppose was Mr. Wainwright's instruction to his pop fans that this was Classical Music and the pieces were meant to be listened to as an integrated whole.

Wainwright then told an anecdote about being at the music conservatory where he went for a singing audition in the opera department, and was told that he had a beautiful voice but the clogs he was wearing on his feet were inappropriate. "And I decided to always wear clogs from that point on," he told us. However, at a dinner the previous evening, the conductor Michael Francis told him that he was keeping time pretty loudly with his clogs and that sometimes they weren't quite in sync with the orchestra, "so I'm taking my clogs off now and singing without them," which he proceeded to do.

I had read a lot about Wainwright over the years on the internet, particularly people making fun of his pretensions, but I'd never actually heard him except for a duet with David Byrne where they massacre "Au fond du temple saint," the beautiful male duet from Bizet"s opera "The Pearl Fishers." So I spent a couple of hours on YouTube before the concert to see what his particular appeal might be. He's definitely a good showman, and his nasal voice seems to work best at emoting sadness and pain, but his diction is pretty terrible with one syllable crooning into another without the help of any consonants. Also, his voice has an extremely limited range, which can work in the pop world (think Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, etc.) but doesn't cut it in the classical world where great, flexible voices are just the beginning of the art.

"Five Shakespeare Sonnets" was nicely orchestrated, and the tunes were fine, but the performance was borderline ghastly, and you couldn't understand a word of the poetry unless you were following along in the program. In his interviews, Wainwright comes across as quite intelligent and he certainly knows his classical music, but admiring something doesn't mean you can actually do it, as his recent reproduction of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall proved. (Click here for his version of "Over The Rainbow" with his recently deceased mom at the piano.)

After intermission, the orchestra played Kurt Weill's 1934 Second Symphony for the first time, written while he was still in Europe, just before fleeing the Nazis for New York City. This was Weill's last "classical" piece before devoting himself exclusively to musicals on Broadway. On the basis of this performance, he made the right choice. His songwriting will live forever while this symphony sounded like Mahler Lite, and wasn't half as interesting as "The September Song," for instance. In fact, I wish they had brought Mr. Wainwright out again, and had him perform "Rufus Does Lotte Lenya." Now there was a singing performer who took a limited voice and created wonders.


Axel Feldheim said...

The audience on Saturday night was certainly a bit different from the usual subscription crowd, so I'm glad you captured some interesting examples. That is such a great idea to have Rufus cover Weill songs. How about "Surabaya Johnny"?

Civic Center said...

Or how about "The Alabama Song"? He could even use the original gender in "For we must find the next pretty boy" instead of changing it to "little girl" like David Bowie and Jim Morrison.

AlbGlinka said...

I've been a fan though I admit his voice is nasally. I think he's an interesting songwriter. Saw him at the Masonic Auditorium and the show was cool, especially when he came out in Act 2 a la Judy in a tux jacket, fishnets and pumps.

Unknown said...

I can not believe that i just read that someone thinks Rufus has poor range! I am laughing. What are you listening with? His range is amazing!

Brian said...

I think I forgot to thank you for taking the bullet on this one last weekend. See what I mean?

Civic Center said...

Dear Brian: I was wearing my bulletproof vest so no serious wounds. I'm just worried for people like Ms. Lisa above who actually think Rufus has a wide vocal range. Have they never heard a classical singer in their lives?

Brian said...

I know, I know. And I've actually been a Rufus fan for many, many years. I've seen him live on five or so occasions over the years including that Judy Garland business a couple years back.

Whether he has a small range or not is not the issue. Many artists with less vocal ability have made great statements with much less than he. As with many things in this life - it's not about the size of the instrument, it is how you use it that makes the difference.