Saturday marked the reunion of the Hamilton Philharmonic with Basia Bulat, for the first of this season’s Pops Series. There is something about mixing together more than one type of music which can be very exciting, in the same way that combining various flavours of foods can be. We’ve become used to certain combinations, and know what to expect. A jazz vocalist with an orchestra, for example, is a “flavour” we all enjoy. We operate within a certain comfort level within that tradition, exploring the unique qualities that each vocalist or stylist brings. Sometimes, as in the food analogy, a whole different flavour is created. Put apples & cheese together, and you have an idea of what Bulat and the HPO achieved. It was a fresh, interesting sound that very much appealed to this reviewer, earning a standing ovation from the audience.
Bulat has a very distinctive sound. Her vocal style is quirky, but not in the cliché, alt-pop trying-to-be- different way of too many recent movie soundtracks. She sounds genuine, and her songs match her voice. They seem to have a life of their own, and they transcend easy categorization. Owen Pallet ( aka Final Fantasy ), who has arranged strings for Montreal’s Arcade Fire, provided one of the bridges between the orchestra and the folk artist, with his creative and inventive orchestral arrangements of Bulat’s pieces, and her band built another. She was accompanied by Holly Coish (keys, ukulele and vocals), Ben Whitely (bass), and Bobby Bulat (drums).
Martin MacDonald conducted the orchestra and organized the evening onstage in a very warm and casual way. He informed us that the opening piece of the concert, Bartok’s Rumanian Folk Dances was chosen because Bartok is the guest soloist’s favourite composer. Some of Bartok can be challenging to the uninitiated, but this was a wonderfully appropriate choice for a Pops audience; melodic, catchy, and very nicely played. Bulat and her group then joined the HPO onstage, and played several of her pieces, some accompanied by the orchestra, some by her band, and some by both. I felt that the highlight of the very strong set was I’m Forgetting Everyone, where her voice seemed to really loosen up and soar. Even the intermission was packed with music. Dawn and Marra, a very promising local duo entertained prior to the concert and during the intermission, on Hamilton Place’s mezzanine level.
Maestro MacDonald then introduced the opener of the second half; Pierre Mercure’s Kaleidoscope. Written in Canada in 1947, it is a fairly straightforward exploration of the sounds that can be produced by an orchestra. It was a gorgeous sonic treat, and again, a very smart and appropriate choice for a Pops audience. Bulat’s second set was at least as good as the first, with a broad range of songs accompanied by the orchestra and her band. She played a few songs that are brand-new, including one for solo voice and charango. At moments in the song she walked away from the microphone while singing, and allowed the wonderful acoustics of Hamilton Place to carry her voice. It caused me to marvel at her talent and to once more to feel intense appreciation for this gem of a theatre with which we are blessed. Another highlight was The Shore, where the collaboration between the orchestra and the guest artist felt very natural.
As the audience stood and shouted its approval after the last song, Bulat returned for a short encore, which included the very infectious tune “Before I knew”, a sly little ear-worm which I’m sure resonated in many ears for the remainder of the weekend! I was very impressed and pleased with this Pops concert. It must be very difficult to put together a show which will reward the artistic needs of all the artists involved, and which will also appeal to a much more diverse crowd than either a symphony or a folk concert would. This one worked and worked well. I look forward to future shows in this series.