RUFUS WAINWRIGHT – ” And Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live “

Posted: November 28, 2021 in MUSIC
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“I’m kind of back,”said Rufus Wainwright, He could have been talking about any number of things — his return to the stage, post-pandemic; or his new album, “Rufus Wainwright and Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live“, But he was referring to his hometown. On the phone from his place in L.A., the beloved Montreal singer-songwriter spoke fondly of his recent return to our city, where he jumped on stage with sister Martha during her performance at the Outremont Theatre, and where he decided it was time to once again have a pied-à-terre. “I just got a little room in an apartment on Esplanade, and was setting it up,” Wainwright said. “I feel a need to be close to Montreal. I hadn’t seen my family in about three years. Over the pandemic, I definitely experienced a lot of yearning for Montreal — not to return there permanently, but to develop more of a foothold in that part of the world.

Wainwright is renting a room in an apartment belonging to some friends. And while he won’t be getting up here all the time, we should be seeing more of him. Perhaps he was inspired by Martha who has been living in L.A these last few years, even opening her own Mile End café and music venue, Ursa, where Rufus has participated in a few hot-ticket fundraising concerts.

Speaking of concerts, his new album was inspired by a 2017 mini-tour of the Netherlands with string ensemble the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. The shows found Wainwright revisiting his own repertoire and some of his favourite songs from across the musical spectrum. The collaboration came about serendipitously. “I had this amazing agent for years, David Chumbley, who was my first European agent,” Wainwright said. “Sadly, he passed from cancer (later in 2017). He always got me really interesting shows, and I have to say, he was a bit of a mobster as well — he could be really tough and scary, which is appreciated in an agent.

“At one point an offer came in to work with an orchestra, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta. I had never heard of them, but I trusted my agent and went in and we put together a set. I let them do all the arrangements. It was a real leap of faith. When I arrived and we started running through the songs with the orchestra, I was dumbstruck by how great the whole situation was — the musicians and the arrangements.”

Critics and audiences of the ten concerts were enraptured by the intimacy and intensity of the program curated by Wainwright. The concerts reflected the immense bandwidth of Wainwright’s musical influences and interests from Verdi Arias to Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, from Rameau pieces to the American songbook and French chanson and from Wainwright’s beloved Berlioz to his family’s and his own songs, some of them written for this program. Emotional centre piece of the album is Wainwright’s almost 9 minute version of late Canadian singer songwriter Lhasa de Sela’s harrowing “I’m Going In”, a song she wrote about her own death from cancer at the age of 37. All arrangements were created specifically for the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and around Wainwright’s voice that is truly at the peak of its power. The artistic kinship between Wainwright and the Amsterdam Sinfonietta lead by Candida Thompson is astounding and make these live recordings into something utterly unique and breathtaking.

Rufus Wainwright and Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live” is the document of that meeting, providing fresh perspective on the singer-songwriter’s broad musical range, as he covers everyone from Irving Berlin to Leonard Cohen, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Hector Berlioz, Joni Mitchell and Lhasa de Sela, interspersed with an array of his own tunes.

“It’s a real potpourri of material,” Wainwright said. “I just felt this need to (showcase) the wide variety of material I’ve covered over the years, and have it all on record, all framed in a similar wood, shall we say, with a string section.

“I think — look, I wouldn’t say it’s a genius move, but in retrospect it’s a very solid proposition.”

Uniting the various styles is Wainwright’s distinct voice, remarkable for its range, power and technical prowess, yet altogether unconventional. As a singer, he makes himself at home wherever he goes, without ever losing the idiosyncratic qualities that make him Rufus.

“If anything, (this album) proves my voice has a strange, multi-faceted ability where it can morph into all these different areas but maintain its identity,” Wainwright said. “When I sing classical, I still sing like Rufus Wainwright. And the same with jazz or my own material; though I’m respectful of genre — I’m not tossing it off. I’m deeply embedded in the material. It’s a balance between keeping my personality and serving the music.”

And so a solemn rendition of Cohen’s “Who By Fire” is followed by a whirlwind version of Mitchell’s “All I Want“; while a heart-wrenching, nine-minute take on Lhasa de Sela’s death-acceptance ode I’m Going In gives way to a spirited tackling of Berlioz’s L’Île inconnue.

The Lhasa piece, which Wainwright calls “the one I’m most proud of,” holds special meaning for him, as singer died just weeks before his mother, Kate McGarrigle, in 2010.

“That song became a real anthem for me at that time,” he said. “It helped my understanding of what my mother was facing, without her having to tell it to me.” Over his two-decade-plus career, Wainwright has recorded pop albums, a Judy Garland tribute, an album of Shakespeare sonnets set to music, and he has composed a couple of operas. Thought it’s far from a compendium of all that activity, the new album is emblematic of it. “I don’t believe there should be any boundaries between music,” Wainwright said. “I very much believe in the autonomy of types of music, but they should all be scalable mountains for everyone.”

Rufus Wainwright and Amsterdam Sinfonietta Live” came out Friday.

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