Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

The Clouds Part for Rufus

Foreboding clouds and cool winds yielded to a brilliant sky and mild temperatures last night for Rufus Wainwright’s fourth appearance at Ravinia in Highland Park, IL – this time with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra – to perform five Shakespearean Sonnets, followed by a solo set of pop music.

Three of the sonnets originally appeared on 2010's All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, which Wainwright performed last year in Chicago with only piano accompaniment.  This time the sonnets were backed by a full orchestra while the singer, wearing a tan blazer and vest, a flashy scarf and white pants, stood at center stage, his hands clasped at his front for much of the show.  Rufus's vocal talents flourished in such a setting, and although some season-ticket holders might have not been sold on Wainwright as a classical artist (many of them left after intermission, or shortly thereafter), it’s undeniable that in pop music his vocal range and control have few equals.  As for the orchestral arrangements, at times they were too busy, with embellishments that cluttered up the melody, but at their best – like in Sonnet 43 – they anchored Rufus’s singing superbly.

For the second half of the show, Rufus appeared onstage – surprisingly without a costume change – for a solo show accompanied by piano, save for four songs backed by acoustic guitar.  His set list was less ambitious from his last Chicago appearance, sticking closely with fan favorites for the most part and ignoring his debut album, though he did unveil a new song devoted to publicist Barbara Charone, and he dusted off two lesser-played songs from his album Poses, “Grey Gardens” and “California.”

As always, Rufus was humorously self-deprecating on stage, admitting before playing “The Dream” that he might not be able to get through it.  Last year, he struggled throughout the most difficult parts of the piece (if you can find me a more complicated piano part for a pop-song, I’d like to hear it) but managed to plow his way through.  This time, Rufus had to stop, utter “Let’s try that again,” and then finally acquiesce after a few more attempts to find an on-ramp.  “I can’t play it anymore,” he laughed, before playing a chord that allowed him to finish the piece.  Perfection or not, the audience seemed genuinely appreciative at his efforts.

A few songs later, Rufus offered a new piece slated for his next pop album (to be produced by Mark Ronson), and said it wasn’t entirely set yet, but that he’d approach it as an “open rehearsal, which is what the show has sort of become.”

The show’s high points were from Rufus’s more intimate songs – “Dinner at Eight,” “Martha,” and “Zebulon” – all devoted to various trials and hardships with his family.  During these pieces, the audience – at least those seated in the pavilion – fell completely silent, a feat which might not have been possible in a setting other than Ravinia. 

The concert ended with the upbeat “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk,” along with two encores, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “Going to a Town,” the last introduced with Rufus’s admission that “although it’s sometimes been hard, I still believe in Obama.”

If there were any Tea Party supporters in attendance, they opted to stay silent.  When it comes to art, sometimes you gotta swallow a few political quips.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved