Concert Review: Randy Newman With the Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall

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In the spirit of year-end list-making, the best concert performance of 2011 is a two-way tie between Jimmy Buffett and Glee Live! in Concert!

No, no, redact that. Such high accolades belong to Randy Newman and the Cleveland Orchestra.

On the way to the majestic Severance Hall this past Saturday evening, I was singing “Oh, it’s lonely in the front” to myself, excited to politely take my orchestra level seating only a few rows from the stage. The concert hall proved humbling, however, as there really didn’t seem to be a single bad seat in the Depression-era’s “temple to music.”

Newman, for the uninitiated, has at least three talents to speak of as a singer-songwriter capable of songs both sincere and satirical, an award-winning film composer, and an able pianist (later that night, he tipped his hat to the orchestra’s pianists that are “better than [him]”).

All three talents were on display at Severance Hall along with his hilarious banter between songs.

Throughout two separate hour-long sets, Newman elicited laughter from select members of the audience and orchestra alike. “Quite an orchestra you have here; they’ve chosen not to accompany me on this one,” Newman complimented before launching into “Short People,” his surprise 1977 hit and call-to-fame.

It was slotted early on, and set a contrast between his solo piano songs and those featuring the orchestra, conducted by James Feddeck.

“Dayton, Ohio — 1903” was added to the program upon request. Newman also performed “Burn On,” a 1972 ode to the 1969 Cuyahoga River fire. Laughing off a fumbling of the keys, he mocked the lyrics by adding in-song quips like “in case you didn’t hear me the first eight times” and “there’s a fact there” (Cleveland’s the City of Light).

The overlap between classical fans and sports fans must be enormous, but Newman avoided adding “Miami” to the program, which was surely a tough decision if he’s even aware of LeBron’s existence. For his sake, let’s hope not.

Two selections in the set spotlighted Newman as another aging musician. “Love Story (You and Me)” was written when he was 23 or 24, but the final lines cynically foreshadow old age when his kids put them in a “little home in Florida” where they’ll “play checkers all day until we pass away.”

Now, at 68, he admits this checkered future “doesn’t look that bad.” On the other hand, he skewers his ‘70s contemporaries for “clogging up stages” decades after their relevance, inviting the audience to sing the “he’s dead!” refrain on “I’m Dead (But I Don’t Know It)” as he offered his “rock & roll rat face.”

Four soundtrack suites were performed with Newman taking Feddeck’s conductor role temporarily. Struggling with the microphone as he switched roles, he comically requested they “send a gentile to work this for [him].”

Beyond celebrating individuals among the robust orchestra, he commended their advanced skill set as “the result of practicing alone in their room for thousands of hours — snipers do the same thing.”

As the lead violins ascended, the others followed in a grand homophonic sweep during the Toy Story suite. On film, this suite saw the toys Woody and Buzz outsmart the evil neighbor Sid, evade his vicious dog Scud, only to rocket skyward, safely landing in the backseat beside their owner Andy.

It’s the most riveting orchestral movement from Pixar’s first feature film, with great modulation propelling the story forward. And to appease the patient children in the audience, we were also treated to “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” later on.

It can be assumed that to appease parents, Newman avoided songs featuring prominent racial epithets like “Rednecks.”

Before the suite from Maverick, Newman advised the audience to avoid laughing at the deliberately quirky introductory music for the film’s lead actors, and it was definitely a rollicking, Western-themed score for a lost time when people still liked Mel Gibson.

In contrast, the suite from Avalon was brassier than the other selections, which also included The Natural.

The final two songs of the second set emphasized how his early works continue to resonate today (fortunate for Newman, unfortunate for the rest of us). The lightly adorned “Political Science” continues to accurately depict U.S. foreign policy.

And the lovingly ornate “Louisiana 1927,” a song critical of President Coolidge’s lax political reaction to the Great Mississippi Flood, was co-opted as an anthem for the eerily similar Hurricane Katrina catastrophe in 2005.

Prior to the two-song encore performance of “Lonely at the Top,” which Neman joked was about Billy Joel, and his oft-covered “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” he offered some parting consolation: “If I ever do a Last Chance to See Me Tour, I’ll be back.”

Quickly recanting the sarcasm for sounding “shitty,” Newman assured he would be back. OK, we’ll be waiting.

Until then, the Cleveland Orchestra goes on, and so do we. In the meantime, I’m sure we’ll do something stupid enough, sociologically speaking, to inspire another album from Old Faithful. Either that, or they’ll make another Toy Story. —Michael Tkach

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