Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright in Concert with the Oregon Symphony
Posted by Michael Evans

If any pop music figure seemed destined to front a symphony orchestra it’s Rufus Wainwright.
Despite being the scion of one of folk music’s great families, Wainwright has brazenly blazed his own stylistic trail over the course of his decade-plus career. Though respectful of the foundation set by his parents, noted singer/songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, Rufus has strived to rise above his musical raising. Never your everyday modern pop troubadour, his inspirations and ambitions have always leaned more towards the classical side of the music spectrum.

So it’s not surprising to find Wainwright joining forces with the Oregon Symphony to present excerpts from his first opera, “Prima Donna,” during an entertaining forward-into-the-past program that officially kicked off TBA 10 Thursday night at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.
Prefaced by a brief self deprecating introduction by Wainwright, conductor Carlos Kalmar led the symphony through a sweeping overture from the French language opera set on Bastille Day 1970. Soprano Janis Kelly, who originated the title role in its premiere 2009 production, turns in an emotive performance as a diva whose career– and perhaps life–is at an end. When she sings, “The fireworks are over. They didn’t last long,” you get the feeling the pyrotechnics are drowned out by the sound of her heart breaking.
Late arrivals or those not so operatically inclined were treated to a second half performance which was more Rufus and less classical. Well, sort of. If there’s a major criticism about the show, it was the short shrift given material from Wainwright’s pop albums. While it was great to hear “Oh What A World” and “Vibrate” in their full orchestral glory, the set could’ve used more examples of Wainwright’s wit filled song craft. Items on the personal wish list not played– “Beautiful Child,” “I Don’t Know What It Is,” “Poses,” “Not Ready to Love,” to name just a few, would’ve made for quite a show on its own.
But that’s why concerts should not be like iPod playlists–instead of getting what you want, you sometimes get something better. In the welcome surprise category: an exquisite rendition of “Absence” by Hector Berlioz, a 19th century French composer who is one of Wainwright’s heroes. Almost as good was a stirring edition of “Hallelujah”. The Leonard Cohen standard has turned into a modern warhorse, but Wainwright’s enduring take has always ranked in the upper echelon of interpretations. Live, it didn’t hurt to have both Kelly and local celeb Storm Large on board to contribute memorable guest vocalizing.
Pink Martini piano man Thomas Lauderdale joins the guest parade as the crew finishes with standards from the infamous”Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall” project. The note-by-note recreation of Judy Garland’s famed comeback 1961 live album is just as crazy as his buddy Gus Van Sant’s cinematic cover of another such classic, “Psycho.” Yes, it’s campy as hell of an idea but it may be the most audacious work of Wainwright’s career. And an inspired work of performance art, which of course, puts it right in the wheelhouse of TBA.