Despite the North Carolina Symphony having ascended to the upper echelons of great American orchestras, they have never been - and are certainly not now - an elitist organization. This will be even more evident during the coming summer months when they will be performing programs that feature music from video games, a tribute to Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, a Radiohead/Brahms fusion, Sci-Fi spectaculars, plus the usual pops programs.* In the midst of these quite adventurous listings was the one-night-only performance by LeAnn Rimes, a singer who at the ripe old age of 30 has already encountered a roller-coaster ride of enormous success, a steep fall, and a host of personal and business problems. The latter is mentioned only because she makes no secret of her bad choices and unabashedly shares these with the audience, both in stories and song.
This was no scaled-down orchestra backing a pop singer and her band. In fact, there were as many players as I've seen on stage for any concert. In the front of the stage was a band featuring a drummer, bass player, a guitarist who had a stage hand coming out with a different instrument nearly every song, and, of course, a pedal steel guitar player - can't have a country band without one. You can set your watch to the punctual starting time of the NCS and this concert was no different. There were also no band warm-ups or intros either. At precisely 7:30 p.m. the band walked out followed by Ms. Rimes and they all launched into the Willie Nelson classic "Crazy." This was especially fitting since as a 13-year-old country music phenomenon, Rimes was already being compared to Patsy Cline, the superstar who was killed in a plane crash at age 30 in 1963. Like Cline, Rimes has not confined her career to a strict country music audience and, for lack of a better word, has enjoyed a huge crossover success.
A source within the NCS told me that they did not rehearse with Rimes at all, and this was confirmed when the singer mentioned that she had arrived at the airport just three hours earlier. You would have never guessed, since the entire performance sounded like a cohesive, meticulously rehearsed performance - especially the interaction between the orchestra and Ms. Rimes' band. The arrangements were well written although they tended towards the usual sustained harmonies in the strings with a few solo woodwind lines. Resident Conductor William Henry Curry displayed his amazingly adaptable expertise in leading actual - and, to some degree, musical - strangers in a tight performance.
For artists like Rimes who have had numerous mega-hits, Grammy Awards, and record-setting stints on Billboard charts, it is always a challenge when preparing a set list to balance your past catalogue (which the majority of the audience bought tickets for) and publicizing your new projects (which is usually what the current tour is all about). Rimes did a masterful job of this, including some unusual surprises. She performed some of her biggest hits, including "Blue," "Can't Fight the Moonlight," and the biggest of all, "How Do I Live." She also performed several selections from her 2013 release Spitfire, a confessional album that treads on the "Too Much Information" line. Songs like "Borrowed," "I Do Now," "Spitfire," and "Who We Really Are" seem almost like the products of psychoanalysis sessions. "What Have I Done," is the most compelling musically: a gorgeous ballad with an exceptional arrangement for the orchestra that highlighted Rimes' songwriting skills.
The unexpected came with Rimes' take on Elton John's "Rocket Man" accompanied just by her guitarist. This ended with the almost obligatory audience participation to the closing "Gonna Be a Long, Long Time" refrain. Then things got really informal. As if she were in someone's living room, she and her guitarist sat on the floor to perform Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
Rimes has a powerhouse voice that employs the traditional country swoops and flourishes as well as subsiding into highly emotional and confessional quiet moments. Her performing persona is mostly quite relaxed and she interacts freely with the audience. Unfortunately a few flubs may have revealed the life of a superstar on the road who is not quite sure where she is. In her intro to one song she explained the "southern" lyrics (you mean I'm not in Brooklyn anymore?) and thanked the "Raleigh" Symphony Orchestra.
The simple and profound purity of her a cappella rendition of "Amazing Grace" was especially moving for her final number. One lone voice in the midst of 100 musicians can sometimes be all you need.
*For details of all these programs and more, see our calendar.