sat 22/11/2014

Van Dyke Parks, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican | New music reviews, news & interviews

Van Dyke Parks, Britten Sinfonia, Barbican

All sides of a twinkling American great

Van Dyke Parks: not disposableSkyler Skjelset

“America treats its musical titans as disposable, and I’m not disposable.” Coming from anyone else, Van Dykes Parks’ declaration last night might have been self-aggrandising. Parks is 69, but he could have said this during any of the last four decades with no problem. He is a titan, and he is not disposable. Coinciding with the reissue of his first three albums, this concert reached back to 1968 and stopped off at all points from then on. And before too.

Parks has opinions and isn't shy of expressing them. He wants you to think. Like his music, he arranges words baroquely and meanings are sometimes obscure. He's concerned with the state of America and his song introductions touched on welfare reform (healthcare costs meant musician “Vic Chesnut could not afford to stay alive”), evolution deniers and the greatness of Franklin D Roosevelt (who should be canonised).

The Britten Sinfonia seamlessly wove themselves into the compositions

Short, white-haired with the twinkling air of a delinquent professor, Parks is about more than the music. The music is about him. Which meant that this performance confounded expectations. Although advertised as a concert where songs would be played from the reissued Song Cycle (1968), Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976), nothing from the latter was aired. We did get a fair amount of 1984’s Uncle Remus-inspired Jump!

As was the case last Saturday at the same venue with Jaga Jazzist, the Britten Sinfonia seamlessly wove themselves into the compositions. From behind his grand piano, Parks was a minimalist conductor. (Rehearsals had begun on Thursday afternoon and continued until minutes before doors opened last night.) Joining the ensemble and Parks were Fleet Fox Robin Pecknold, Grizzly Bear's Daniel Rossen, vocalist Gaby Moreno and drummer Don Lee Heffington. The 13-song set was supplemented by a four-song encore and a postscript recital of Orlando Gibbons’ 17th-century madrigal "The Silver Swan", reinterpreted for solo piano. Parks said it was his favourite piece of music ever.

The music was left to say it all about the Brian Wilson connection

A spectre could have loomed, but didn’t. Brian Wilson has been part of Parks’ life since 1966. They worked together recently to re-record Smile, and collaborated on Orange Cart Art (1995) and That Lucky Old Sun (2007). The title track of the former and an encore deconstruction of "Heroes and Villains" were it for the Wilson connection. The music was left to say it all.

Pieces that seemed (at least to me) as if they could be unplayable live with full orchestration came to life. Song Cycle’s "Palm Desert" and a politically charged "The All Golden" suddenly became less abstract. The presence of the obviously chuffed Pecknold and Rossen may have helped ground things. Quick turns into songs from other composers set Parks in context: Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me”, Randy Newman’s “Vine Street”.

This evocative concert wasn’t a greatest hits, but a taste of who Parks is - a hard thing to get a handle on. This is the man who took Charles Ives to the Appalachians and pulled it off. A former child actor, he was initially signed to a record label as a songwriter. He became an arranger – his first credit was The Jungle Book’s “The Bare Necessities”. A solo artist and lyricist too, he’s worked with Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Phil Ochs and Joanna Newsom. This always unpredictable musical magpie radiated warmth. This concert didn’t define him. That’s impossible. But it did confirm - as if it was needed - that he is one of America’s greats.

Watch Van Dyke Parks perform "The All Golden"

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