Proms 66 + 67: Rufus Wainwright – ‘Want Symphonic: Want One & Want Two’
(Royal Albert Hall. 5 September 2023. Live review by AJ Dehany)
The Royal Albert Hall is the only place on earth with the perfect measure of grandeur and intimacy to stand up to Canadian singer, songwriter, and opera fan, Rufus Wainwright, performing with his customary verve not one but two Prom concerts in one evening, with the BBC Concert Orchestra on superb form, conducted by Sarah Hicks. For Want Symphonic, new arrangements of his songs have been made to celebrate twenty years of what is generally considered his finest achievement and defining statement, the twinned albums Want One and Want Two. It was catnip for fans, but casual listeners might have been left cold.
Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.
It takes a special force of personality to command two Proms in one evening, and these were not even Rufus Wainwright’s first Proms. That was in 2014. “My piano playing is terrible,” he said back then; by 2023 he now claims he’s “a fairly good pianist.” Well okay. Let’s face it. Root-Fifth and Rachmaninov, that’s 90% of piano playing, and the rest is Chopin. The new arrangements are hard to distinguish from the old ones. If they’d removed the central piano or guitar then that would be different, as they do in “The One You Love” where the spiky guitar figure introduction is transferred to the strings, which is more interesting.
There is a sense of carefully cultivated spontaneity to Rufus’s songwriting: those throwaway lyrical aperçus, the why-not chord changes and swift alterations of emotional tenor and timbre that stand in ironic juxtaposition to the efforts of arrangement and production in settings. The self-injunction on “Pretty Things”, “don’t overspill!”, is ironic but not. His schtick isn’t directly overspill but designed to appear like camp confessional, full of bon mots, with a vivid eye for detail. The real raw emotion comes from play with the personal idiom of the writing rather than literal truth. In “Poses”, he’s not really drunk and wearing flipflops on Fifth avenue (unless he is). “God knows what all these new drugs do” is like a Noel Cowardisation of his very real problem at the time with actual crystal meth.
“Oh What A World” is the strongest of openings, Rufus’s encapsulation of his folkocratic family background, personal outlook and his abiding folie de grandeur. But with no other vocalists present, there is a problem with the negotiation between layers of interlocking vocals and orchestral chaos as the song incorporates motifs from Ravel’s “Bolero” and bulges spectacularly out of control. It’s go big or go home but the new over-faithful arrangement by Chris Elliott slightly bottles it. Plus, time wears all heels: it was cheeky fun back then, but quite honestly it gets more irritating as the years go by.
And the urge of Rufus and the team around him to call absolutely everything “Symphonic” – rather than *merely* orchestral – is born of a harkening for grandeur, cute in its own way, but at the same time never knowingly underblown. You feel arranger Josh Hickin gave Rufus exactly what he wanted in the Want Symphonic Overture that opens each concert, but the cloying MGM cinematic schmaltz is kind of hideous.
“Crumb by Crumb” receives a sparkling jazzy throwaway feel from Sally Herbert, and Michael P Atkinson’s orchestral writing for “Old Whore’s Life” gives it some sass and a suggestion of Gloria Gaynor. “What” is an anarchic art piece, almost a collage, benefits hugely from the imbued sense of focus. “Go Or Go Ahead” loses a lot: those tweeting backing vocal parts are really important, and aren’t quite the same replicated orchestrally. Less powerful, less brutal, the otherwise heartstopping “Look in her eyes” refrain loses so much. I listened to that song the same afternoon and it destroyed me as much as ever, but a slightly mangled performance sadly didn’t really do it for me.
Want Two opens with a touch of the avant-garde, sounding like a circuit breaker scratching the violin strings, before plunging into the full might and majesty of Agnus Dei, probably the closest we’ll ever get to Rufus going full-on Scott Walker, with dark chordal clusters and a breathtaking vocal in Latin. It’s enough to convince any naysayers, but alas it’s pretty much a one-off.
Want One is full of greatest hits. Want Two middles off a bit, and it seems like a less satisfying album, but its greater weirdness made for a better Prom. The redeeming song on Want Two is “The Art Teacher”, performed solo with a boomingly Baroque piano. The song works so well because Rufus’s references to art and culture are built into the story, a narrative of a young girl, a remembrance separated by gender and time, “years ago”. There’s a pleasing ambiguity about whether it is she or he who is “starting to lose my mind” that makes it especially resonant. It makes you wish that he would step outside himself more often.
FULL SET LIST COURTESY OF BBC
Want Symphonic Overture arranged by Josh Hickin
Oh What a World – symphonic version arranged by Chris Elliott with additional orchestration by Ron Goldstein
I don’t know what it is – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Vicious World – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Movies of Myself – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Pretty Things arrangement by Rufus Wainwright (solo piano)
Go or Go Ahead – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Vibrate – symphonic version arranged by Marius de Vries, additional ` orchestration by Ron Goldstein
14th Street – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Natasha – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Harvester of Hearts – symphonic version arranged by Michael P Atkinson
Beautiful Child – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Want – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
11:11 – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Dinner at Eight – symphonic version arranged by Chris Elliott with additional orchestration by Ron Goldstein
Agnus Dei – symphonic version arranged by Michael P Atkinson
The One you Love – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Peach Trees – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Little Sister – symphonic version arranged by Van Dyke Parks
The Art Teacher arranged by Rufus Wainwright (solo piano)
Hometown Waltz – symphonic version arranged by Michael P Atkinson
This Love Affair – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Gay Messiah – symphonic version arranged by Morris Kliphuis
Memphis Skyline – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Waiting for a Dream – symphonic version arranged by Max Mostin
Crumb by Crumb – symphonic version arranged by Sally Herbert
Old Whore’s Diet – symphonic version arranged by Michael P Atkinson
Encore: Going to a Town arranged by Max Mostin
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk