Rufus Wainwright and the San Francisco Symphony
November 13, 2010
@ Davies Symphony Hall
Better than: Rufus Wainwright sings Dante's Interno.
All right, I'll just say it: most of my knowledge of classical music comes from honking "Flight of the Flutes" on a trombone in high school concert band, and I really only went to the San Francisco Symphony on Friday night to see Rufus Wainwright.
So let's just fast forward to the part where Wainwright, the favored modern piano man of gay men and fag hags of everywhere, strode out onto stage at the Davies Symphony Hall in a characteristically eccentric get-up: Army green paisley pants. Red daisy pinned on his black shirt. Slight paunch. Free-flowing hair. You could practically hear all the fair-weather, first-time symphony goers perk up and chant Ru-fus! Ru-fus!
Wainwright was there to sing Five Shakespeare Sonnets -- co-commissioned by the symphony for the premiere performances -- for which he's composed an orchestral score. He informed us in an after-show Q&A that he's got 10 sonnets in the bag, and some day in the future, is hoping to record them. (He revealed, "my publishers are here tonight.")
I saw Wainwright's solo piano show more than five years ago, the lasting memory from which was how he cracked up the audience by occasionally announcing he'd lost his way in the song. There was no losing his way this weekend. Standing at a microphone beside the athletic, curly-haired, conductor Michael Francis -- who also was making his San Francisco Symphony debut -- Wainwright was the mad genius amidst an army of swaying violinists and head-banging wind players carrying out his vision.
Still, Wainwright understood his role Friday as another instrument among many, often tilting his head back to open his throat up like a vessel through which round, pure sound could flow, sometimes squatting into certain phrases with his hands clasped at his chin looking as if he were pleading to use the restroom. (Surely, Shakespeare could have put it more delicately, but it's the truth.)
The orchestra opened with "Sonnet 43," which had a creepy, aharmonic swelling of sound that gives you the sensation of lowering into Wainwright's Weird Wonderland (he prefers the term "dreamscape.") Next on to "Sonnet 20" (no clapping between, we were told beforehand! This is a song cycle, people!) which is a sweet, major-key love poem to a feminine man that many say is evidence Shakespeare was homosexual. "Sonnet 129" was the star of the show -- mischievous, strange, Rufus reaching into his squeeky falsetto range to eek out the upper registers of discordant runs. The final sonnet, number 87, starts out other-worldy, like a pristine snow with violins sustaining one high note while Wainwright sings the melody. It grew to a bombastically loud climax that filled the hall and made the lady seated in front of me squint and pull her head back like the people in those surround-sound commercials.
Wainwright threw side glances at the conductor for direction, weaving his voice into the music, but not overtaking it with his star power. (Actually, Francis said Wainwright had been very un-diva-like about the whole thing, willing to tweak his material once he saw what was working and what was not.)
He got a standing ovation from the majority of the 2,700 person audience, and the entire ground floor filled with people staying to hear the Q&A session after the show. And that's when Wainwright, the star, emerged. As grown up as Wainwright's music is, there's still something very goofily boyish in the not-yet-40 year old's manner. Plunked into the buttoned-up symphony environs, Wainwright gave the impression of the precocious wunderkind entertaining his parent's dinner guests. He expects to be thought charming, and indeed, he is.
He scored big laughs when he announced, "I was a big opera queen at the age or 14, which made me very in fashion with the other kids." Yet his best joke of the night was unintentional, after a question about whether he was intimidated by working with Shakespeare's work -- whether "the music will take away from the sonnets or the sonnets will take away from your music?"
"Well the sonnets will never take away from my music," Wainwright replied flatly, appearing confused by the audience's laughter before realizing his faux pas. "Oh, the other way around!" The symphony hall swelled with its loudest volume level of the night, and Wainwright doubled over to laugh, too, bouncing back up straight to say, "Oops!"
Crowd: Old men working round, horn-rimmed glasses, trim mustaches and tweed jackets. A lot of white hair and corrugated foreheads. A society lady with a grotesque fur scarf with racoon tails hanging from the ends. Lots of fashionable eyewear. The guy next to me was reading The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition. A young blonde lady bent over her grandmother at intermission, loudly enunciating, "Our tic-kets are the most ex-pen-sive! I bought them on sale."
Wainwright on covering the Bard: "Lyrics [for] the songwriter are arguably 75 percent of the labor involved. If you look at Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, the words are the essence of a song ... and [Shakespeare's sonnets are] pretty good lyrics."
Critic's bias: I admit this was my first time at the San Francisco Symphony, and my last review for All Shook Down was a Shakira concert.
Most bizarre-o Wainwright quote: A young vocalist student from City Arts and Tech asked Wainwright his advice for young musicians starting out. "Don't wear clogs to an audition."
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