Reviewed by Rebecca Sheriff
Last Saturday’s (May 12) Binghamton Philharmonic Pops concert with guest artist Suzanne Vega brought together orchestral and singer/songwriter music fans to experience the versatility of both genres. Vega’s understated intensity was punctuated by the orchestral arrangements of Karl Berger and Gerry Leonard.
The evening at The Forum in Binghamton started with two orchestral selections before Vega joined the stage with an electric guitarist and bassist. Vega’s subdued sincerity was not only felt in her songs, but in her introductions to songs. She introduced Gypsy explaining that she wrote the song at age 18 when she “thought she knew something about love.” She told the story of how it was written for a young man from England with whom she worked at a summer camp. She presented him with the song when they parted at the end of the summer, and, Vega stated, in return he gave her his bandanna. Gypsy presented an impressive picture of the songwriting talent Vega possessed even at a young age.
Vega followed up with Liverpool, written 12 years later while in England, in which she wondered what might have become of the boy she wrote about so many years earlier. This “sequel” expressed songwriting growth between the creation of the two related songs. Liverpool delivered a haunting tale and matching eerie music. The lack of orchestration on the first song added to the mature and mystical feeling of the follow-up song.
I particularly enjoyed the cerebral lyrics on all the songs and was disappointed when it sometimes was difficult to make out the words especially at the ends of phrases on lower notes. Several songs sounded very much like sung poetry with Vega’s rhythm guitar as a musical beat. Liverpool, for example, began with these short poetic phrases:
On the avenue
The light is pale and thin
No sound, down
In this part of town
Vega commented that she is sometimes self conscious that she writes so many songs in A minor, when she played two songs in a row in that key, both of which also had a similar mid-temp feel. However, the sound and tempo suited her voice and style well and conveyed the messages and stories she is expressing through her songs.
Utilizing a guest artist such as this for a pops concert is an ingenius way to demonstrate the versatility of both genres and reach audiences of both orchestral and “popular” music. In these tough economic times, when arts are particularly struggling to survive, and maintain and increase audiences, the Binghamton Philharmonic found a way to reach out to many music lovers and incite passion.
The second set of the evening started again with two orchestral selections. The first, Infernal by David Schiff, was described by Conductor Jose-Luis Novo as “fun and crazy.” He engaged the audience by stating that he wanted to know “what you think” of the piece. Next, the BPO played a medley of music from the movie Titanic, allowing listeners to hear the pure beauty of the music, shining on it’s own, outside of the film.
Vega then returned to the stage with more profound tunes. I particularly enjoyed Solitude Standing, reminding me of Emily Dickinson’s poem “Her soul selects her society.” The night came to a close with Vega’s biggest hits. The orchestra added dimension but did not overpower the tender Luka and the orchestral accompaniment to Tom’s Diner was perfectly balanced. I would hope a recording of the evening would be available as Vega’s first performance with a live orchestra is a special events for the performers and audience alike.