Jeremy Dutcher won the Polaris Prize for his album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa, which means “The Songs of the People of the Beautiful River.” It combines his singing and piano with wax cylinder recordings of Indigenous songs from over 100 years ago. Several friends recommended it to me and it’s fascinating – unlike anything I’ve ever heard, and an excellent fit to be performed with the symphony.
We got to the Conexus Arts Centre and I was delighted to discover I’d bought us good seats. It had been a while and I’d forgotten, but we were dead centre, five rows back in a row with extra legroom. Fine work, me. Though it’s a little weird being so close. There’s so many people in the orchestra and they can all see you. They likely won’t, they have things to do, but still. They could. It’s unnerving.
Symphony shows are hard to write about. They start on time. You have assigned seats. There are no drunken louts. No inexplicable opening acts. No wacky misadventures and no deep-fried anything. In short, no shenanigans, and I get my word count from shenanigans. I mean, the Executive Director of the symphony introduced the performance, then was presented with a bouquet as she’s moving on to a fancier job at one of the major American symphonies. That’s a nice moment but nothing I can work with. I need some loud drunks and maybe a fistfight.
Also, the more formal the music, the less I know about it. And I’m not really suited to intelligently critique rock shows in bars by artists I’ve seen ten times over already.
Anyway, the performance had a pattern. The symphony performed a few pieces, then Dutcher would join for some, then he’d leave for one, then come back, then repeat. Dutcher was an engaging performer – not only a very talented singer and pianist, but charmingly funny as well. He had a recurring bit during the second half where his desire to stay hydrated slowly escalated as the night went on. I have to describe it in vague terms because it doesn’t sound funny if I say he came out with a glass of water, returned a while later with the pitcher, and then finally drank from the pitcher before the encore. See? Not funny. But it was funny when it happened.
For the first half, he wore what appeared to be a beaded jacket, but he emerged for the second half wearing a full-length floral robe. I mention this only because symphony patrons were all in for this robe. This robe was a star. This robe could have headlined the show without help.
Wait, right, music, yeah. The point of this all, not water and robes, even exceptional robes. It was what I expected – beautiful and haunting, expertly sung and performed.
Most of the evening was Dutcher’s songs. This should be the part where I get to cheat and transcribe the program, except – gasp – it’s wrong. At least slightly; it lists Up Where We Belong by Buffy Sainte-Marie, and they didn’t play that, though they did perform Until it’s Time for You to Go, another of hers. There was also a Dvorák piece, and one by Cris Derksen. But Dutcher was the star, reimagining historical music in a modern context, then blending it with the orchestra in a memorable performance.