(This review is written by American-Statesman freelance arts critic Luke Quinton.)
“I’ve cried like 50 times,” Dana Falconberry said — “today,” she added.
There was a generous mood for Texas Choral Consort’s “Indie Orchestra Night” on Saturday, a sweetheart of a project that also offered up some moments of real synergy.
TCC is conducted by the effervescent Brent Baldwin, and he was diving into his metier here as he can— perhaps uniquely among Austin classical presenters — with his long history of playing for touring rock bands, and navigating rigorous art music.
Baldwin took the stage at LBJ High School’s Don T. Hanes Theater rather gloriously, in a blazer and a Slayer T-shirt underneath. Which conductor in town is so in touch with this city’s cultural quirks as Baldwin?
The premise was straightforward. Luminaries connected to the Austin music scene, performed a few songs with TCC’s choir and backing orchestra who played new arrangements by Baldwin and Austin composer Nathan Felix. And TCC would also debut a Felix premiere by weaving movements throughout the evening.
The lineup was a good mix. In a sense, Shearwater’s Jonathan Meiburg was headlining the thing, and yet there were surprises along the way, namely Zeale, the Austin based MC.
“This is a poem, I wrote it last night,” Zeale said, and no doubt it was a bit of a rush job. One lyric muddled about “not letting go of a rifle,” while they “paint me as a psycho.” But then a line more insightful: “coop you up like a pigeon/then they want to sell you religion.”
As things progressed to Felix’s grandiose pop orchestral background, Zeale’s talent bloomed. His stylish, gravelly voice delivered solid lyrics and, after some big tours with AWOLNATION and Imagine Dragons, he has a real stage presence. Some Jay-Z vocal affectations (those practically trademarked “uhn”s) and a few Kanye similarities were microscopic distractions to this engaging performance.
Rocketboys were sentimental but solid, thanks to frontman Brandon Kinder’s handsome pipes, but it was Falconberry who made the strongest connection to the classical tableau. Falconberry’s own music is spare and clever, which seemed to leave perfect openings for Baldwin. Drop a great drone of violins here, a breakdown beat and handclaps from the choir, there. Falconberry’s heartland gothic lyrics were pulled into faux death metal cello/bass licks and whistling sul tasto of violins. Sometimes here the strings were drowned out, but no wonder Falconberry was moved. The choir’s echoing and deepening of her lyrics alone was magic.
Felix’s own work, Neon Heaven was a quirky aperitif in between these moments, with hints of a dark Mendelssohn, and choral passages in Latin. There were pieces of beauty in stretches, but sometimes the work fell still, as if the counterpoint hadn’t been quite fully run to ground.
Shearwater’s Meiburg wearing a tucked-in dress shirt and glasses, took the stage one white collar away from the ministry. Meiburg, who we’ve unfortunately lost to New York, has a gift, of course: a golden voice.
“I haven’t been on stage with an orchestra in a choir since I was 11 years old,” he said.
Meiburg’s music feature a complex arrangements of their own, and here Baldwin’s arrangements gave him a bed of jittery dissonance, brilliantly sharpening Meiburg’s delicate melodies. I wouldn’t say Meiburg was in perfect voice — a few cracks snuck in — but a falsetto this rich demands an emotional response. Fans would recognize songs like “Meridian,” with its tender falsetto, and the choir’s support, along with percussion parts of angular notes and metallic clangs, kept things smartly off-kilter.
Felix and Texas Choral Consort will probably get a record deal or two out of this.