December 6 – I’d heard in advance that Rufus Wainwright was making a strong request to audiences for his current concert tour that they hold their applause during the first half of the show, while he plays the song cycle that makes up his most recent record release, All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu. I didn’t realize until seeing the show at Carnegie Hall that he was treating this song cycle as a kind of theater piece. He makes a dramatic entrance in silence, processing slowly across the bare stage wearing a thick black cape with a 20-foot train. He sits at the grand piano and proceeds to perform the album’s dozen songs, while video plays of a gigantic blinking blue eye smeared with too much dark eye shadow. (Visuals by Douglas Gordon, whose photography also graces the cover of the album.) Three of the songs are adaptations of Shakespeare sonnets; the others are somber, dark, and sad, reflecting as they do on his feelings during the final days of Kate McGarrigle, his beloved mother. They’re not his best songs, not especially melodic, rather monotonous in fact, with florid show-offy piano arrangements and lyrics that sound like hasty blog entries. At Carnegie Hall, with its billowing acoustics, many of the lyrics were as difficult to hear as they are to read in the liner notes of the album, where they are written out in Rufus’s flourish-crazy handwriting. When the set was over, he got up and processed offstage as slowly as he arrived. Many of his diehard fans found this act a little hard to swallow, including me, but it certainly showed off the many sides of Rufus: the self-indulgent narcissist, the diva, the ambitious artist always wanting to stretch himself, the little kid playing dress-up, the grieving son.
After intermission he came back onstage dressed more casually in sweat pants (“don’t worry, they’re very expensive!”) to do a another set of favorites for the fans, again with only piano accompaniment. By himself he did “Grey Gardens,” “Memphis” (his tribute to “another New York legend, Jeff Buckley”), “Going to a Town,” “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” and “Dinner at Eight,” a song about him and his father, Loudon Wainwright III, who was in the audience. Rufus brought out Stephen Oremus, the music director for his remake of Judy at Carnegie Hall, to accompany him on a bunch of Garland standards: “Do It Again,” “A Foggy Day,” “If Love Were All,” and “The Man That Got Away.” And he brought out his sister Martha (who looked fabulous in spangly tights and super-high heels) to sing with him on “Moon Over Miami,” “Complainte pour La Butte” (from the Moulin Rouge movie), and “Hallelujah.” And then of course there were tons of encores, beginning with “Poses,” for which Martha came back onstage, this time with her infant son Arcangelo. “We start ‘em young in the Wainwright/McGarrigle tribe,” Rufus cracked. And then a couple more Judy Garland numbers, “Alone Together” and “You Made Me Love You/Me and My Gal.”
It was a celebratory and fun evening, but I was very aware that Rufus started the second half with “Beauty Mark,” his great zesty song about his mother, and ended with one of hers, “The Walking Song,” about the early days of her courtship with Loudon: in its own way a sweet memorial tribute to a wonderful musician and Rufus’s best friend.
Lots of famous fans showed up for the concert. I saw Antony Hegarty (of Antony and the Johnsons), who was sitting in front of Stephen and Alvaro. I spied Frances MacDormand with her Coen Brother, and I chatted with Laurie Anderson, who was there with Lou Reed. Laurie looked great and remarkably relaxed, considering that she’s been on tour much of the year with three different shows. She told me she just performed at a benefit concert with her dog Lolabelle. I was trying to track Lou’s possible connection to Rufus, and then I remembered that Kate and Anna sang the odd little “Balloon” song on his Edgar Allen Poe album, The Raven.
December 11-12: I got behind on blogging because I had a couple of performances of my own with Gamelan Kusuma Laras at the Indonesian Consulate. It was a long and somewhat challenging program. I wasn’t surprised that several of my friends who came to the concerts had their fill and left at intermission. It was a gas for me. I got to play kethuk on one number (the welcoming music, “Clunthang/Kasatriyan”), and then I sang with a chorus of other folks on three other numbers (in ancient Javanese!). It’s been decades since I did so much singing in such a short amount of time. I was a little hoarse afterwards. And then for days I could not get some of this music out of my head….!
December 13: Thanks to my friend Roman, I found myself sitting sixth row center at Alice Tully Hall for a concert by the Juilliard Orchestra, playing two pieces new to me: Prokofiev’s Piano Concert No. 3 and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. Both were fantastic. The Prokofiev turns out to be one of those fiendishly difficult show-offy vehicles for a virtuosic pianist, like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concert No. 1. In this case, the performer was an unbelievably talented 19-year-old Juilliard student from Virginia named Julian Woo with impossibly long fingers, all the better to play long stretches of crazy cross-handed piano, his fingers literally tickling the ivories, diddlly-diddly-dee. The orchestra, of course, includes basically the cream of the crop of young musicians, passionate and confident and highly attentive, dreamy to hear. And the conductor for the evening is some kind of rising star, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the Quebecois music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic who will take over the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2012. He’s a Leonard Bernstein-like dynamo, fantastically expressive, at times leaping off the floor, other times caressing his own cheek to cue the string section. The Ravel was equally exciting and exacting. The excellent programme notes by James M. Keller informed me that Daphnis and Chloe, commissioned by Diaghilev for the Ballets Russes, is Ravel’s longest composition ever with the largest orchestral accompaniment as well, including such rarities as celeste and wind machine. The Dessoff Choirs, which Andy sings with, provided the choral contribution, which consisted entirely of swoony non-verbal aah-ing and oo-ing that at times sounded like the music accompanying certain kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley dance routines. I’m laughably uneducated at the history and appreciation of the classical repertoire, so I’m glad to get exposed to such treasures, however that happens.