Saturday night – with its midwinter chill – felt like the perfect night for warm storytelling.
In Kleinhans Music Hall, Jamestown native and renowned singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant joined the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra to regale the capacity crowd with an evening of well-told story-songs.
The evening’s collaboration between Merchant and the orchestra was meant in large part to showcase songs from Merchant’s 2010 double album “Leave Your Sleep,” a beautifully conceived collection of 19th and 20th century British and American poetry set to original music by Merchant. But the set was also well-populated with gems from the artist’s venerated solo albums, as well as her days with the 10,000 Maniacs.
From the beginning, Merchant commanded the stage with an easy confidence, her voice dipped in earthy charm and graceful wisdom. Soloist and ensemble opened with “Nursery Rhyme of Innocence and Experience,” a stirring song about the passage of time as childhood gives way to maturity. Merchant’s delivery was noticeably restrained, as if speaking in hushed tones and whispered words to clue the listener in on their great importance.
Upon performing “Life is Sweet,” from the 1998 album “Ophelia,” it was clear that though BPO Associate Conductor Matthew Kraemer was at the podium, there was also an insightful maestra onstage, interpreting the orchestra’s fluid phrases with the detailed flourish of her hand. The singer’s showmanship did not stop there – she often twirled, two-stepped, scurried or tangoed across the stage, in an attempt to make it her own.
At times, Merchant’s efforts to create the right performance paradigm for her engrossing folk songs in this classical concert setting felt awkward. During a few of the selections, such as “Equestrian,” the orchestral arrangement seemed more like background music than an integral part of the creative performance. In that moment, the orchestra needed to sound and feel like Merchant’s band, and not just a quality orchestra playing notes on a page behind her.
“Beloved Wife,” from Merchant’s solo album debut, “Tigerlily,” fared much better in that regard, though it was somewhat unsettling when she began to emphasize the downbeats of a crucial forte section with the forceful chop of her arm cutting through the air. In this instant, her maestra persona began to give the impression that she was conducting Kraemer as he conducted the orchestra – an unintended result that proved to distract from the music.
Elsewhere, Merchant and the BPO found the right collective harmony onstage. The orchestration for “Gold Rush Brides” brilliantly evoked the sprawling American plains, as the solemn majesty of trumpets accented the midtempo optimism of the song. Most importantly, the singer and her stories were always the focal point, and the BPO’s sensitivity to her musical intuition and song-craft was key to making the concert a success.
In return, the soloist’s obvious respect and admiration for the ensemble behind her made for some of the concert’s most touching moments. During extended instrumental passages, Merchant would often walk over to the piano at stage right, and leaning against it – simply listen, in awe and quiet adoration. And during the moving “Verdi Cries,” the sonic balance between singer and orchestra was at last achieved, as the musicians onstage became one entity, one cohesive band.
Natalie Merchant is a consummate storyteller, and the evening’s set felt more like the passing down of a rich and storied aural history, chronicling the tales that tell our future as well as our past.