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Review: Rufus Wainwright and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra at Bass Hall

Posted 10:52am on Friday, Jun. 14, 2013

Of the many facets of Rufus Wainwright’s musical personality, North Texans have had the opportunity to see several of them over the last decade.

Thursday night at Bass Hall, the 39-year-old singer, songwriter and composer unveiled a heretofore unglimpsed side of his creativity — classical virtuoso.

Working in tandem with conductor Andres Franco and the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Wainwright spent about 95 minutes traversing his catalog, albeit with the full, fluid backing of an orchestra. He focused heavily on his somber 2010 LP All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, an ambitious, downbeat work created in the wake of his mother Kate McGarrigle’s death from cancer.

After the FWSO set the tone with a selection chosen by Wainwright — Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture — the singer took the stage to a standing ovation, and opened the evening with the Texas premiere of a Shakespearean sonnet song cycle (three of which appear on Lulu), reading each piece and then performing it with orchestral backing.

Technically demanding (Wainwright unfurled the full length of his expressive, textured voice, reaching high and low with passion and precision) and exquisitely rendered in blessedly still silence, it was a striking display of Wainwright’s affinity for material beyond his pop metier. The orchestra was in quicksilver lockstep with Wainwright from the start, and the selections put a welcome spin on the usually awkward or strained fusion of pop and classical musicians.

Following a 20-minute intermission, Wainwright and the FWSO returned to the Bass Hall stage — still dressed in its Cliburn finery — to perform an array of songs from his back catalog, including Vibrate, Little Sister and a stunning version of Oh What a World. Clad in a charcoal gray vest and slacks, with a yellow rose pinned to his breast, Wainwright didn’t have many opportunities to offer his trademark asides (those he did, however, are regrettably unsuitable for sharing in a family publication).

The introduction of poppier cuts didn’t mean Wainwright strayed from the classics: he offered up a trio of selections from Berlioz’s song cycle Summer Nights, performed in French (he said he’d like to record all six parts some day). A heartstopping rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow paid tribute to McGarrigle, and Wainwright closed with the final aria from his 2009 opera, Prima Donna.

And while the variety made for an exciting evening, sustaining momentum was tricky, particularly with so many ponderous, deliberate song choices. It didn’t help matters that the second half of the night’s performance felt pieced together, conceived more out of a need to have the orchestra contribute to every tune, rather than constructing a clear emotional throughline.

Thursday’s performance was Wainwright’s second North Texas show in less than a year ( he memorably invaded Dallas’ Meyerson Symphony Center last fall), but the crowd was unforgivably sparse. Whole swaths of Bass Hall sat empty, as one of the year’s most intellectually engaging and emotionally fulfilling shows unfolded on its stage.

If Wainwright was flummoxed by the thin but adoring audience, he didn’t let on, although he did acknowledge, prior to launching into the Berlioz material, that he felt sorry for a young boy who had to sit through “classical songs in French.”

That he plunged ahead anyway, losing himself in the music and meaning, is reason enough to cherish an artist of Wainwright’s caliber. This Bass Hall show was a gift, shared among the fortunate few who took it in, and a singularly unique glimpse of one of pop music’s most vital talents.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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