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Cutting to the essence of tunes

Michael Hope drew us back to a kinder, gentler time on Saturday — if the Second World War era can be described that way.

The Calgary-based singer pointed out at the Red Deer Symphony Orchestra’s Croonermania! concert, that some of the loveliest, most heart-tugging songs ever written where penned during the catastrophic war years when so many people were separated from loved ones.

Emotion lies at the core of songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s and Hope delivered exactly the right nuances at an electrifying pops evening at the Red Deer College Arts Centre.

While the 52-year-old’s dramatically edgy baritone voice lacks the ultra-smoothness of say, Tony Bennett or Michael Bublé, his ability to cut to the very essence of tunes proved second to none.

Despite plenty of toe-tapping orchestration from the impressive 50-member RDSO — including some fantastic and inventive percussion (see anvil reference below) — the most memorable moment was when Hope performed a stunning a cappella version of Fly Me To The Moon.

It was an unusual rendering, but Hope’s instincts were spot on. Instead of tossing off the song’s romantic lyrics as Frank Sinatra did, Hope slowed down the tune that compares the highs of love to flying to Jupiter or Mars. He gave us a window into such raw longing and vulnerability that listening was a powerful experience.

In fact, audience members were too rapt to break the lingering silence with applause before Hope launched into Send in the Clowns.

While that song popularized by Judy Collins is often given the maudlin treatment, Hope’s stark, unsentimental delivery actually drew a tear on Saturday — so in my books, the tune is cheesy no more.

Impossible Dream is also often associated with bombast.

But Hope put the song from Man of La Mancha into context with the help of the RDSO, which first played a rousing Spanish Fandango before Hope sang passages from the musical that led up to the verses about never giving up on your dreams.

His performance of this tune, as well as Mack the Knife, It Had Better Be Tonight, and New York, New York, was pure Broadway and summarized what’s most affecting about the singer: Because Hope’s expressive, colourful voice doesn’t lull you to sleep, you actually pay attention to the lyrics and his moving interpretations.

There’s no irony in Hope’s delivery (no tottering around, like Dean Martin, with a half-full cocktail glass in his hand, no towelling off of his forehead, a la Neil Diamond).

But earnestness worked wonders for him — without staunching any fun.

Hope’s engaging version of Swinging on a Star spotlighted his lighthearted side, as did his upbeat Too Darn Hot from the musical Kiss Me Kate.

Hope’s finger-snapping, hip-swivelling performance of Fever was so sizzling it actually pushed the image of Peggy Lee crooning it in a caftan right out of my head (no mean feat). And the orchestra helped with exclamatory booms of the kettle drum.

Give the RDSO full credit for going Big Band for the evening, complete with whistles and hand drums. As conductor Claude Lapalme admitted, “We almost feel cool.”

With seeming effortlessness, the orchestra pulled off Lapalme’s winning orchestrations, including a medley that included Don’t Get Around Much Anymore, as well as an instrumental version of Neil Young’s Heart of Gold.

Since the latter song hangs on a mining theme, Lapalme thought he’d get a percussionist to play the anvil. (Full marks for originality, but less is certainly more when hearing the anvil).

All in all, everyone involved in Croonermania!, including pianist Kathleen Van Mourik, did a amazing job of reminding us once again why these tunes of more than half a century ago are truly timeless.



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