Tom Strini

Arlo Guthrie charms with the MSO Pops

By - Feb 12th, 2011 01:26 am
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Arlo Guthrie's orchestra album with conductor John Nardolillo, who is conducting in Milwaukee.

Arlo Guthrie walked right in, sat right down, picked up his guitar and started singing and telling stories Friday night. The vibe was of an old pal dropping by for a little visit.

That’s not so easy to bring off when 80 or so members of the Milwaukee Symphony are behind you and you’re looking out on hundreds of people in Marcus Center Uihlein Hall. But Guthrie’s natural warmth filled the room and made it feel intimate. It’s a great pleasure to hang out with someone who is so comfortable in his own skin.

Guthrie is in his mid-60s now. His mane has turned a distinguished white. He used to be a wise guy. Now, he’s a wise man who hasn’t lost his sense of humor — or his passion, though a longer view might have tempered it.

He has also retained his voice. I prefer the way he sings now to his youthful sound; it’s less nasal and whiny and has more grown-up gravitas. Guthrie phrases beautifully; he connects with the songs and connects them to you. His range is small, but blessed with a world of nuance in timbre and inflection and expanded upward with a hoarse, fragile, irresistible falsetto. You can just feel the sincerity behind every note and word.

He sang several of his own songs, the beautiful sad ones: Darkest Hour,  If You Would Just Drop By, In Times Like These, When a Soldier Makes It Home. He didn’t sing the ones we all remember: Alice’s Restaurant and Motorcycle Song. Guthrie explained that some songs are just too silly to play with an orchestra.

Still, laughs abounded. They came in the rambling monologues between songs and, sometimes, in interruptions of the songs. My favorite bit had to do with his approach to songwriting: “It’s like fishing. Mostly you sit and wait. Every now and then, a song swims by. If you have a pencil, you can catch it.”

John Nardolillo conducted and did remarkably well keeping the MSO with his soloist. I also admired the energy Nardolillo brought to Bernstein’s Candide Overture and to some Copland, the Simple Gifts finale from Appalachian Spring and the Hoe Down from Rodeo.

Guthrie’s material is folk music or close to it and does not lend itself to orchestral treatment. Arranger James Burton mostly framed the soloist in cushioned chords, which was fine. Except for one or two occasions, he resisted the siren song of orchestral grandiosity. His coolest trick was turning the winds and brass into a convincing simulation of a New Orleans dixieland band in St. James Infirmary Blues.

Guthrie, a fine bluesman, dug into St. James and bent pitches affectingly in both his voice and his guitar. He’s not a flashy musician, but he’s good. Guthrie improvised on guitar, piano and harmonica with great confidence and taste.

He honored a friend, the late Steve Goodman, with a heartfelt, nostalgic City of New Orleans, and he honored his father, Woody Guthrie, with both anecdotes about him and an extended version of Guthrie’s signature This Land Is Your Land. He didn’t have to urge the crowd to sing along. We just did, because by then we were all friends and felt like singing.

This program will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11-12. Tickets are $25-$95. Call the MSO ticket line, 414 291-7605,  or the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.

Categories: Classical

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