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Rufus Wainwright performs with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (Handout)
Rufus Wainwright performs with the Orchestre Symphonique de Montreal (Handout)

Music review

At the OSM, a bit of everything from Rufus Wainwright Add to ...

L’Orchestra Symphonique de Montréal

  • Rufus Wainwright, soloist
  • Simon Leclerc, conductor
  • At La Maison symphonique in Montreal on Wednesday

Symphony concerts with pop stars can be dicey territory for reviewers simply because you can’t apply the same criteria to the performance as you would for a standard classical evening. This must drive cultural purists crazy. Those who hold fast to outmoded silos forget that culture is interesting precisely because it mutates, that’s the richness of cross-pollination.

So if you don’t like transgression in art, you may as well stop reading now.

Wednesday night the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal hosted Rufus Wainwright, a master at stretching musical and lyrical boundaries. So when you look at a program and see that he’ll be singing three of the songs from Hector Berlioz’s beautiful cycle Les Nuits d’été, you know from the start this isn’t going to be a Susan Graham or Dame Janet Baker performance. But he’s ballsy enough to invite you along for the attempt and willing to take the risk of falling flat in the process. The intention – some would dismiss it as pretension – is to involve you in his sense of music-making.

The evening was loosely woven around Shakespeare in music, starting with a crisp performance of Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Conductor Simon Leclerc’s reading of the score was bright, though lacking a little fairy dust.

From there we moved onto five of the 24 sonnets that Wainwright set to music for Robert Wilson’s stunning 2009 Berlin Ensemble production of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Three of the sonnets are included on the album All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu with Wainwright alone on the piano. Hearing them backed by the OSM gives you a sense of the eclectic nature of the Wilson/Wainwright production. His scoring of When most I wink and of A woman’s face with nature’s own hand shares a Brittenesque sensibility that evokes John Dowland. For shame seemed overly lush, while The expense of spirit was jaggedly dramatic and intense.

The second half began with My Phone’s on Vibrate for You from Wainwright’s 2003 album Want One. That led to his typically self-effacing banter about being a not-entirely-successful music student at McGill, more interested in singing in Verdi’s Requiem and writing songs than studying. That was a segue of sorts to the three Berlioz songs – Le spectre de la rose, Absence and L’Ile inconnue – and the invitation to take part in an experiment, his attempt to sing them with orchestra.

In a way, it was a cringe-making set-up. He has recorded Le spectre de la rose with piano before, but with one of the finest orchestras playing the score behind him, the potential for embarrassment was huge. Yet it signalled not that he thinks he’s an opera star, just that he loves this music – a sort of “See, this is what I love to listen to.” And he made it through them.

For being good sports, we were rewarded with him and sister Martha Wainwright singing La complainte de la butte. They then were joined by their aunts, Anna and Jane McGarrigle, to perform Entre la jeunesse et la sagesse, a song by their late mother, Kate McGarrigle. He followed with a little Judy Garland, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah and, to close out the evening, an excerpt from Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna, the Berlozian Les Feux d’artifices t’appellent.

The French program notes have it right: Rufus Wainwright – writer, composer, singer. The OSM presented a lovely evening with this talented songwriter-singer.

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