Rufus Wainwright is the kind of performer that can make an orchestra-backed concert at Southam Hall seem like an intimate, private show in a basement in Brooklyn. He has a way of transforming the stage.
On Wednesday night, Wainwright demonstrated his formidable presence with the accompaniment of the NAC Orchestra led by conductor Jayce Ogren. To fans, this already sounds fantastic. Beautiful songwriting, beautiful voice, an orchestra – it’s hard to see how this would miss, and it didn’t. In many cases the orchestra backing gave Wainwright’s songs something that the original recordings lacked, embellishing the drama and emotion.
If there was a misstep, it was that many of the songs were not accompanied, and the entire orchestra was able to watch Wainwright use his vocal chords and piano. Thankfully, no one made it too awkward, and many of Wainwright’s songs are best kept simple.
In terms of repertoire, much of it was from Wainwright’s earlier career. He played “Poses,” “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and even “The Art Teacher.” He only played one song from his most recent album Take All My Loves, which features musical renditions of Shakespeare’s sonnets. It was clear he was giving the fans what they wanted as many a hoot was heard at the opening notes of any number of classics. What’s remarkable is how fresh these nearly 20-year-old songs sounded. I remember watching Rufus Wainwright play Bluesfest in 2005 (or thereabouts) and if anything it felt like he performed the songs better here.
Okay, now we have to talk about “Hallelujah.” Perhaps the most contentious question in music of our time is as follows: “which version of ‘Hallelujah’ is the best?” In fact, Malcolm Gladwell did a podcast on the debate. The original version, by Leonard Cohen, is not typically seen as the best, except by die-hard Cohen fans and people who enjoy lengthy songs that are mostly about religious themes. Jeff Buckley is a go-to for many, likely because it is the most well-known cover. Of course there are many other versions of “Hallelujah,” but I think I may have heard the best version of the song performed on Wednesday night.
There is something about Wainwright’s voice that works so well for the song. It has a quality that makes everything just that much sadder, a sonorous piercingness that is almost unique to him. The way Wainwright performs the song brings out the heartbreak that has always been central to Cohen’s writing – and Wainwright’s for that matter.
The concert was very tight, and while Wainwright did three encores, he in no way overstayed his welcome. The combination of Wainwright and orchestra was genius, and should be attempted more often.