A good show by a good artist who once composed ‘Poses’

Rufus Wainwright with the VSO at the Orpheum, 11/6/19

“A little bit heiress, a little bit Irish, a little bit Tower of Pisa”. Rufus Wainwright has always been the first to admit he’s a lot of things. Yet, it’s hard to tell just where the truth about him is. At least, at first.

Not that he is trying to hide anything. On the contrary, whether it’s the promiscuity and crystal meth addiction of the early adolescence, the grief over his mother’s passing, or excitement over stylish frocks – he seems to be an open book. 

Excitedly jumping onto the stage of the Orpheum Wednesday night, he was wearing a glittery designer x-ray shirt and well-worn jeans: a pop star opposite the reservedly black-and-white Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.

The two-hour concert was a resume of his eclectic creative effort of the past two decades. Songs from his early albums dominated the setlist, yet Wainwright is also a composer behind two operas, an album of William Shakespeare’s sonnets set to music, and an acclaimed Judy Garland tribute project. 

This fascination with Broadway musicals and what he calls “popera” might not come as the most exciting news to lovers of the early, raw Wainwright. Perhaps those were his most self-destructive years, but they bred Poses and Want, albums that are arguably hard to top with a cover of “Over the Rainbow.”

Of course, one can’t blame a person for maturing. In fact, in a recent interview with the UK’s The Daily Telegraph Wainwright admitted to feeling cautious about singing his old tunes: “The young Rufus was very different to who I am now. But he will haunt me and taunt me!”

Still, it was hard at times to reconcile the depth of the original lyrics and the musical talent with the meaningless (if lovable) banter between the songs. One moment he was singing of unrequited love, the next – laughing about his Halloween-like outfit. Where is the truth?

Perhaps the truth was in the voice. Its overwhelming force and emotion was a binding element that turned what could have been a potpourri into a superior performance. Bypassing the quirky poetry and fancy strings arrangements, it provided a direct connection to the listeners.

“Poses” the song came in the second part of the show and was the first one to be greeted with an instant ovation during the intro. It was a quiet climax of the concert, reinforced by the touching Rachmaninoff-esque orchestral arrangement. It was also a reminder of just how high the standards Wainwright had set for himself were. The coming-of-age themed lyrics were also a caution Wainwright gave to himself: “Once you’ve fallen from classical virtue / Won’t have a soul for to wake up and hold you”.

Thankfully, he has managed not to fall, and more climaxes followed. “Going to the Town,” despite being a decade old, is a relevant commentary on modern-day America and struck a chord with the sentiment in the audience. “Candles” was a heart-breaking a cappella ballad dedicated to his late mother. And, crowning the evening was, of course, “Hallelujah,” a song many in the crowd were still singing to themselves while leaving the Orpheum.