Amanda Palmer brings EdgeFest what it needs

A review of Boston Pops's EdgeFest with Amanda Palmer on June 19

, Staff Writer

Now that’s what I call an EdgeFest! Before the Pops’ opening set Keith Lockhart promised the crowd "something the likes of which you’ve never seen before," and he wasn’t kidding. In Amanda Palmer the series finally found an edgy performer to push the symphony in all the right directions. Four years of EdgeFest have brought big names and flashes of brilliance, but never has a collaboration been so inspired from start to finish.

The Pops took their seats and started playing with no introduction or fanfare, but Palmer brought fanfare enough for all when she burst in through the side door, clad in an elaborate gown without a front to better show off her knee high stockings. As the Dresden Doll stalked the aisles singing "Missed Me" she was greeted by orchestra members who were, gasp!, not in their seats. Watching a tuxedo clad Pop bang a tambourine on his butt let everyone know that this wasn’t Natalie Merchant’s EdgeFest. The song ended with Palmer pulling a black sheet off of a mysterious shape onstage, unveiling an orchestra member who played a solitary note on the triangle.

Palmer was giddy all night, constantly smiling and giggling, and she greetied the audience with a sing-songy "Hi, this is awesome!" before beginning "Astronaut". With Palmer’s husky voice leading the way the Pops backed her up with jarring punches, then settled into a comfortable groove with stormy crashes and swells, finally reaching the power in a main set that they frequently reach in their own opening sets (Holst’s "Mars, The Bringer of War" was especially good tonight).

"The Point of It All" from Palmer’s forthcoming solo album filled the requirement of piano ballad with soft orchestral accompaniment, leaving plenty of room for the Daltrey-esque lyrical melody to dance in the fore. All convention was tossed aside for the next song as Palmer got up from the piano and sang a show tune, namely "I Can’t Say No" from Oklahoma. The orchestra’s professionalism provided a brilliant contrast to Palmer’s theatrical charisma, and the result was a take rough around the edges but bursting at the seams that garnered huge applause from the crowd.

Due in September, Who Killed Amanda Palmer? was produced by EdgeFest alumnus Ben Folds, and in a nod to her producer Palmer turned in a very pretty cover of "Brick" in the same key but a different register without changing the gender of the pronouns, an interesting re-contextualizing of the song. That was followed up by a powerful new song from Palmer’s solo album which she wrote "at a really emotional time after the school shootings at Columbine." With it’s hushed chorus of "tick, tick, tick, tick" and dancers from the Boston Conservatory wearing white face paint, walking in slowly, and doing interpretive dance, the song produced a powerful effect on the rapt audience.

Just as another apparent piano ballad threatened to rein in the momentum, "Have to Drive" hit it’s peak, building into a loud, martial bridge as 10 choir members accompanied Palmer on stage, one of whom happened to be her father, and the symphony once more got a chance to flex their muscles. Palmer then thanked her father to a loud ovation.

"Coin-Operated Boy" was a microcosm of all the things that this collaboration did well in comparison to others. The song, while excellent, is not typical symphony fodder, so the recasting was exciting to hear, with different Pops members trading embellishments to the melody. The intro was playful, with Palmer striking dramatic chords in an attempt to put the crowd off the scent of what was coming up and joking oh-so unprofessionally after some crunchy intervals, "that was wrong. I even screw up at Symphony Hall." And there were some truly memorable moments, like when the live performance went into record-skip mode and Lockhart went over and shook Palmer to get everyone moving again. Or when Palmer played with Keith’s conducting hits by pausing between words, then pushed Keith out of the way to conduct herself, only to have him replace her on piano. Not only did the Pops show that they are extremely talented, they also proved that they can let their hair down, look up from the page, and have fun.

Speaking of fun, a slow blues guitar intro led to a take on the classic "What A Wonderful World" during which Palmer was joined by the other half of the Dresden Dolls, Brian Viglione, who had some fun of his own doing a brief Louis Armstrong impression. The duo slow danced as the symphony soloed, then left the stage to thunderous applause. The night’s choreographer Steven Mitchell Wright, wearing tights and makeup, got the crowd psyched for Palmer’s return to the stage. When she did, this time in a slinky black dress, she took a seat on the piano for "Don’t Tell Mama" from Cabaret, complete with three burlesque girls for a moment unique in Symphony Hall history.

Viglione returned again with an acoustic guitar for the last song of the night as Palmer gushed, "It was so scary but it was great. What a good, good band," leading to a well deserved ovation for the Pops. "Sing" was delivered with emotional force. Palmer was visually arresting as she stood center stage, the symphony building up to a gargantuan crescendo all around her. By the time the song hit the bridge the entire hall was singing "ahh’s" in affirmation of the hugely triumphant moment. Palmer thanked, bowed, and left the stage to resounding cheers.

EdgeFest, a series conceived to stretch the conventions of the symphony and bring the Pops to a new generation reached it’s highest point. After countless near-misses and artists nowhere near the edge (Natalie Merchant?) Keith Lockhart and company finally found their muse, and she was right in their own backyard. Amanda Palmer loosened up the Pops enough to coax a performance out of them the likes of which they had never given before. Punk Cabaret has come to Symphony Hall. Now we may have seen it all.

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