Mary Chapin Carpenter Re-Imagines Hits in 'Songs From the Movie': Concert Review

Chris Lee
Mary Chapin Carpenter
The orchestral arrangements lent a rich sheen to Carpenter's stark brand of folk-pop.

The Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter, joined by a few of her friends, performed orchestral versions of her songs featuring the New York Philharmonic.

Mary Chapin Carpenter had help from more than a few friends for her Friday night concert with the New York Philharmonic. Besides the esteemed orchestra performing symphonic renditions of numerous selections from her extensive catalog, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter was joined by guest vocalists Joan Baez, Shawn Colvin, Tift Merrit, and Aoife O’Donovan, as well as such musicians as master dobro player Jerry Douglas. It made for a stirring evening of music that provided a rich re-imagining of her lyrically emotive songs.

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The singer is currently touring to promote Songs From the Movie, featuring ten of her songs newly arranged for orchestra by Vince Mendoza, who also conducted the NY Phil. It’s an intriguing experiment that doesn’t entirely succeed, but at its best, it infuses her stark folk-pop numbers with a rich texture.

The evening began with Carpenter, accompanied only by her core group of musicians, delivering an affecting rendition of "I Have a Need for Solitude." The several songs that followed featured her accompanied by Colvin, Merrit and O’Donovan in various combinations, lending shimmering harmonies to "This Shirt," "He Thinks He’ll Keep Her" and "Transcendental Reunion." This was followed by orchestral versions of "The Dreaming Road" and "Come On, Come On" which carefully spotlighted Carpenter’s sensitive vocals. The generally restrained, string-heavy arrangements featuring gentle percussion and muted horns lent an Aaron Copeland flavor to the proceedings.

The orchestra got their chance to shine after the intermission, with a gorgeous rendition of Elmer Bernstein’s haunting suite adapted from his film score of 1962’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Baez, who received a tumultuous reception, lent her still powerful voice to a duet of "Stones in the Road," which featured a glossy, soft-rock sheen. Carpenter then shone with a potent rendition of her "Mrs. Hemingway," about the writer’s falling in love with his wife’s best friend.

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The encore, dedicated to the late Pete Seeger, featured all of the singers harmonizing on "10,000 Miles," followed by their trading verses on the show closing "The Hard Way."

Unlike, say, Sting -- who several years ago performed a similar orchestral re-imagining of his oeuvre -- Carpenter’s songs have a sameness that at times threatened to give the evening a repetitive feel. But the joy she took in performing with the large ensemble was infectious, and the enthusiastic response from the audience proved that this was an experiment well worth undertaking.    

Set List:

I Have a Need for Solitude
This Shirt
He Thinks He’ll Keep Her
Transcendental Reunion
On and On It Goes
The Dreaming Road
I Am a Town
Between Here and Gone
Come, On, Come On
To Kill a Mockingbird Suite (NY Phil)
Stones in the Road
Only a Dream
Mrs. Hemingway
Ideas are Like Stars
Goodnight America


10,000 Miles
The Hard Way