Published Oct 25, 2015Few artists are able to boast as many Halifax Pop Explosion performances over the years as hometown indie-pop hero Rich Aucoin. In fact, there's only one that can: Symphony Nova Scotia, which each year performs with a different artist during the festival. Saturday night (October 24), Aucoin and the Symphony's respective HPX paths finally crossed as they put on the second of two collaborative performances at the Dalhousie Arts Centre's Rebecca Cohn Auditorium.
If you only knew Aucoin's music from his confetti-strewn, hyper-electronic live show, the classical proceedings may have seemed an odd fit. But his records, especially his full-length debut We're All Dying to Live, display an arranger's ear and a taste for the scale and sensibilities of symphonic music. Aucoin wrote the score for his Symphony Nova Scotia collaborations himself (with arranger David Christensen as his supervisor), and was determined to almost exclusively use the classical instruments of the orchestra. There were to be no keyboards, no confetti, no rainbow parachute.
There were, however, still sing-alongs — and, on that front, Aucoin had some help. There's a reason that, even on record, Aucoin's singing voice (soft and whispery, barring the occasional shout) is rarely heard on its own. The community spirit of his songs demands a chorus, and for his Symphony Nova Scotia shows, Aucoin recruited an all-star choir of familiar Halifax faces: Don Brownrigg, Gianna Lauren, Tara Thorne, Willie Stratton and nearly 20 more. They belted along to Ephemeral opener "Meaning in Life" to start the show, their "whoas" and "ohhs" carrying over a rising tide of strings. They also took turns stepping to the mic, one after another, to harmonize with Aucoin for the slow-building "All You Cannot Live Without," one of several songs Aucoin rarely gets to perform due to their incongruity with his standard live show.
For that song, like most of Saturday night's show, Aucoin sat centre stage at a grand piano, dressed in a formal tuxedo complete with tailcoat. His enthusiasm, though, couldn't be completely contained by the formalities: for the conclusion to "All You Cannot Live Without," he bounded across the stage to the side speaker, jumping on top to perform the song's trumpet climax. During the portion of each set in which he performed minimalist takes on songs like "Four More Years" and "Want to Believe" with a small selection of percussionists and other players, he often leapt to his feet as he pounded away on the keys, kicking his stool aside in full Jerry Lee Lewis fashion.
As great as some of those performances were, the eight songs with the full symphony, conducted by Martin MacDonald, bookending the two sets were the highlights. I've never quite understood the Pavlovian joy I've long felt hearing the opening xylophone-piano combination that builds into Aucoin's "It," but as the entire symphony joined in, it became one of several points during the show when I felt genuinely overcome. Aucoin's shows have always had a spirit of church in them, be it their call-and-response patterns or the choral nature of their sing-alongs. Stripping away Aucoin's (admittedly entertaining) live gimmicks and infusing the songs with a hyper-dose of classicality served only to elevate the sense that, together, the 80-plus musicians on stage and the hundreds of audience members were engaged in some sort of shared spiritual moment (even if only of the secular spirit).
The one Aucoin live staple that did make it into the show was an opening welcome video, which featured this Simone de Beauvoir quote: "Life is occupied in both perpetuating itself and in surpassing itself; if all it does is maintain itself, then living is only not dying." As themes, life and death have dominated Aucoin's songwriting. His best songs play like a plea for fevered existence in the here-and-now, keenly aware of that at some point all our stories will end, and they will all end the same way. Normally, the solution Aucoin's live shows offer to answer that plea is to dance. Last night, he had slightly loftier aspirations, and by all accounts, achieved them.