Prom 66: Rufus Wainwright

Want One [album recreated in full preceded by ‘Want Symphonic Overture’; encore was ‘Going to a Town’ from the album Release the Stars]

Rufus Wainwright

BBC Concert Orchestra
Sarah Hicks

Reviewed by: David Gutman

Reviewed: 5 September, 2023
Venue: Royal Albert Hall

Few festivals can compete with the range of music presented at the Proms since founder-conductor Henry Wood took up the reins in 1895.  At the season’s original Queen’s Hall venue, destroyed during the Blitz, programmes were routinely constructed from popular ballads, cornet solos and the like in addition to classical overtures, marches and shorter extracts. The hall even offered primitive moving pictures as well as fine music at first. That said, Western art music was the focus of the endeavour with both contemporary music from outside that tradition and even smaller, older choral pieces generally perceived as beyond the pale. There was controversy as recently as 1997 when The King’s Singers placed music by Clément Janequin alongside seven Beatles covers. You don’t have to subscribe to Anthony Burgess’s bleak view of pop stardom as immaturity – ‘a wretched little pseudo-musical gift, a development of the capacity to shock, a short-lived notoriety, extreme depression, a yielding to the suicidal impulse’ – to fear for the survival of the Sir Henry’s educative mission in the 2020s.

All of which is a little unfair on the multi-talented Rufus Wainwright. He may tick some of Burgess’s boxes (and others) but no-one could accuse him of writing only the kind of ‘popular music’ that can be evaluated in terms of its contribution to the bottom line. In June he released an album of folksong collaborations, Folkocracy, celebrating the musical legacy of his own famous family. Reviews were mixed but Want One, his benignly narcissistic third album sounds audaciously grand and wonderful twenty years on. You’d expect nothing less from an artist who has subsequently dared sing Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été in concert, has had a go at writing opera and is said to be working on a musical and a Requiem.One might wish for a narrower focus but that is not his way.

Tonight we were promised ‘brand new symphonic arrangements created specially for the Proms’ – some mistake surely given that the composer/performer had an overlapping set with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia only last month. The youngsters in marketing seemed most enthused by the promised guest appearance of one-time Scissor Sisters frontman Jake Shears, 44, in the separate Want Two recreation starting at 10.15pm, too late for this 65-year-old.Wainwright himself is 50 and has played the Royal Albert Hall before, with and without the benefit of Proms branding. The Japanese-American Sarah Hicks conducted, a Morricone enthusiast and no musician has ever been more adaptable and ageless than he.

The evening began with a purely orchestral overture promising much, a twinkling, opulent medley credited online on the BBC Proms website to a John Hickin but more plausibly the work of Joshua Hickin. Discreetly miked up it seemed sensitive to both occasion and acoustics and even embraced a fugal episode. Also splendid was the album opener, ‘Oh What a World’. The song kicks off with an unassuming oompah accompaniment on tuba, morphing into a typically offbeat epic conceptually indebted to ‘What Now, My Love?’, Cal Sigman’s English-language version of Gilbert Bécaud’s ‘Et maintenant’ (as covered by Judy Garland, Elvis Presley et al). Rather than using just the recurring ostinato from Ravel’s Boléro, Wainwright borrows the actual tune and what sounds like a full-strength orchestra even on the original album. The lyrics, self-centred but joyous and positive, were audible in the big barn. So far so good. As throughout the evening Wainwright’s singing was strong, a curious mix of the grateful and the wearing, superbly accomplished on its own terms. The colour remains oddly nasal yet capable of conveying emotional weight with real beauty, vibrato gilding the line.

What happened next was on one level disappointing. The tendency to pump up the volume after the first few songs (as in every rock-oriented event I have ever attended), had the unfortunate effect of muffling much of the reimagined instrumental texture, thrusting the vocal line (quite unnecessarily) forward at the expense of mid-range detail. Instrumental filigree was visible to the eye, but in the driving, rock-oriented material, largely inaudible from my seat. Songs like the glorious, apocalyptic ‘Beautiful Child’ were bound to be impactful anyhow. Wainwright, dressed idiosyncratically and exuding offbeat charm, addressed the crowd to admit to technical difficulties with his word prompt, acknowledge his limitations as a pianist and pay tribute to his collaborators. The main arrangers were Sally Herbert and Maxim Moston (Max Mostin according to the BBC Proms website).

As a show the concert will probably be judged more successful than his previous Prom, a late-night appearance here in 2014 with Deborah Voigt, but it was not the radical reinvention that might have been hoped for. Was that inevitable? John Metcalfe’s orchestral arrangements for Peter Gabriel have been genuinely transformative, adding another dimension to determinedly non-acoustic originals. Wainwright stands rather in the tradition of Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman or, closer to home, Van Dyke Parks, because the sound is already half ay there. Radio listeners may have been in a better position to make a judgement, undistracted by the busy rockshow lighting and aural anomalies.  Needless to say the hall was full, the enthusiasm boundless. Was this a Prom or a tour date pulling in its own demographic? Do such questions even matter anymore?

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