Rufus Wainwright – Ravinia concert

Rufus Wainwright & the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
And when I get there I will lose the ring you gave me

August 14 at Ravinia Festival, Highland Park

Some songs remind you of people. A small, white room in a basement, a bed, a nightstand, a desk, a chair. A crisp winter night, one that makes you glad you’re steeled against it by these four walls. Listening to an album on the cd player, sprawled across the bed, talking, laughing, holding someone. “Leaving for Paris” is one of those songs for me. It’s an old high school girlfriend; it’s heartbreak, now with the distance of years, long enough to be able to indulge in sentimentality without disappointment or heartache setting in. She’s now married and we’ll probably never see each other again, much less talk. But I still remember “Leaving for Paris.” It’s probably the main reason I put in to see Rufus Wainwright at Ravinia. Some things don’t let go of you.
I would not consider myself to be a “fan” of Rufus; I’ve always enjoyed what I’ve heard, but it’s never been music that has forced me to seek it out – despite the sentimentality attached to some of them, I don’t own any of his records. So I went to Ravinia last Sunday hoping for a good show, good music, and maybe something supremely interesting: the CSO was also billed, after all, so presumably they would be performing together. And, indeed, they did. The CSO began the evening with the overture to Beatrice et Benedict by Berlioz; they then went into Mendelssohn’s scherzo and nocturne from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. All were excellent – exactly what you would expect. There is nothing in the world quite so wonderful as the sound of a good French Horn.
After these pieces, Rufus Wainwright joined them to perform a set of Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music he himself composed: sonnets 43, 20, 10, 129, and 87, respectively. These were interesting and enjoyable. The first, sonnet 43, is distinctly modern in tone, perhaps Wainwright proving that he knows what’s going on in the modern classical world, and wanting to show that he can keep up with it. As such, it is slightly more perfunctory than the rest, but still an intelligent piece, transforming (as almost all of these did) through the quatrains. Sonnet 20 begins with a gorgeous opening, and melds into 10 seamlessly; which contains a very peaceful and very typical Rufus melody with Busby Berkeley orchestration swirling around it. Sonnet 129 has a stormy opening, with well-married melody and orchestration. It slips into beauty before returning, in its completion, to the brutality of the early section. And 87 contains an ethereal melody, hints of Renaissance music, and a healthy dose of whimsy; yet it is also triumphant. That ended the set, and, to much applause, the CSO, Jeffrey Kahane conducting, left the stage, and there was a 15 minute intermission to get all the chairs off.

The stage is bare: a piano, a chair, a monitor, a microphone. Rufus returns to the stage, dapper and humble. But especially dapper. He begins with “Who Are You NY?” then settles in with the aforementioned “Leaving for Paris.” Immediately he comes across as one of those performers who allows themselves to be transported by every song; he holds nothing back from the audience, he allows himself to feel every single one of his songs in its entirety and allows us to watch. He makes the Ravinia stage, bizarrely bare and immense now that it’s been emptied, intimate. It’s just we and he. We could be in a small café – in fact, all of his songs sound like you’re in a small, Parisian café with a glass of wine and a hand-rolled cigarette and your sorrows.
His stories and quips are also endearing: after his third song, he stands up, gets his guitar, and tells us a story of how he was “niced to death” in Michigan at the Traverse City airport. After the playful “Sanssouci,” he tries to strum a song that he’s literally just come up with: “Falling in Michigan…” he croons, but he can’t figure the chords and gives up, grinning. “Oh, well!” A few songs later – after the heart wrenching “Martha,” a song for his sister about their family – he turns and starts telling us what he’s about to play and why and how he’s come to this decision. It’s a song he wrote, supposed to be performed with one person on the piano and one singing: the piano part is extremely difficult. He was going to play it safe tonight, he says – only easy songs. But, hell, it’s been so long, why not? But he’s not played it in a good while, so he welcomes us to his “open rehearsal.” Indeed, he falters only a few bars into the song, stops; “Let’s try this again.” It’s a beautiful song, with fantastic piano work, and a complex melody. He didn’t quite make it through; screwed up a couple of times, tried again, but finally gave up. But that only added to the intimacy: it takes a brave person to walk on stage and botch a song in front of thousands of people and be okay with it.
He also tried out a new song – as yet unreleased – on the audience to gauge their reaction. He’s going into the studio in the fall with Mark Ronson, whom some of you may know from Back to Black, which he produced to great critical acclaim, as well as the stand-out cover single “Valerie,” also a collaboration with Amy Winehouse. That’s enough to get any music fan excited. So Rufus started playing “Barbara,” a song he wrote for a woman who was actually in the audience that night. “She’s never heard it before,” he tells us. It’s light, airy, and ethereal. The song begs for strings. It’s the aural manifestation of a summer romance. Two songs later, “Zebulon” finds Rufus literally mourning on stage. Finishing the set with the celebratory “Cigarettes and Chocolate,” he flips the mood on its head. And the encore consists of his rendition of Leonard Cohen’s track “Hallelujah,” which, because of its inclusion in Shrek, might be Rufus’ most well-known song; but that song will forever belong to Jeff Buckley. And he finishes the night with “Going to a Town,” in which he sings “I’m so tired of America.” To be sure, the song is a laundry list of all the things this country is doing wrong; and the first time I heard it, I was somewhat nonplussed – there was a sort of malaise, everyone was doing anti-American songs (I say anti-American, but it’s not that simple: the best were critical, but came from a position of love, and this song is no exception). It’s stood up well, I think, and I enjoyed it more this time than when I saw it on Letterman a few years back. (Although my favorite song in this vein is almost assuredly Randy Newman’s “A Few Words in Defense of Our Country,” which still makes me laugh every time I listen to it; but comparing anyone to Randy Newman seems rather unfair.)
Rufus Wainwright has proven to me that he is an excellent performer and a true songwriter. His melodies are lovely and his voice is unique. I will certainly be seeing him again.

Highly Recommended
Will Fink

Date Reviewed: August 14, 2011

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