Joel Plaskett and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra meet in the middle

Monday 16th, January 2017 / 13:47
By Mathew Silver

Joel Plaskett brings his orchestra experience and versatility as a performer into the CPO fold this month.
Photo: Courtesy of Joel Plaskett

CALGARY — Long before Joel Plaskett was a JUNO winner and the darling of the East Coast music scene, he pilfered through his father’s record collection and developed a love for older English folk music. Decades later, after those humble beginnings gave way to a fruitful life in music, the 41-year-old continues to evolve as an artist, performer, and producer. Along with releasing new album, Solidarity, Plaskett will ring in 2017 with a performance alongside the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) on January 24. During the performance Plaskett will be reaching into a mixed bag of past favourites, as well as previewing some new material.

In February, Plaskett brings his career full circle with a collaboration with his 70-year-old father and fellow musician, Bill Plaskett. Part album, part autobiography, Solidarity features a mix of acoustic folk and traditional songs, with working class undertones, and the earworm lyricism that has come to define Joel’s music over his career. While some families have photo albums to preserve their history, the Plasketts have used a different medium to tell their story.

The title track, “Solidarity,” recounts Bill’s journey from England to Canada in the 1960s, and by extension, explains the older folk influence that permeates Joel’s songwriting. The chorus belts like a proletarian anthem, and it summarizes the album’s earnest optimism. There’s no frills or pretense, just warm, cheery vocals atop clean acoustic picking.

It’s certainly a departure from the indie-rock hits that Plaskett churned out in the mid-2000s. We watch as songs about early adulthood evolve into politically aware folk tunes, without sacrificing the modest, small-town accessibility that endeared Plaskett to the audience in his early years.

Plaskett says that some of the ballads and moodier songs from his catalogue lend nicely to an orchestral arrangement. He will also lean on his past experience playing with an orchestra, the most notable performance coming alongside the National Arts Centre Orchestra in Ottawa.

“The symphonic thing is a different animal,” says Plaskett. “It’s a completely different discipline because you can’t improvise in any way.” This forces Plaskett to rigorously plan his sets, which is counter-intuitive to his often raw and raucous approach to performing, revelling in the conversational nature of the live environment. Plaskett often finds himself reacting to the audience, taking requests, and feeding off their energy.

Both Plaskett and the orchestra have a limited amount of preparation before the show. According to Karl Hirzer, the CPO’s resident conductor, it might mean only one rehearsal. He says that the musicians sight read, even if it’s a substantial work in the repertoire.

The ability to perform under these circumstances speaks to the versatility of the 66 full-time musicians at the CPO, who have refined their craft over years of arduous practice and discipline. Both the upcoming album and his collaboration with the CPO reflect Plaskett’s versatility as a musician, as few artists are as seasoned in live performance in both acoustic and electric settings. It’s this appeal, specifically, bridging the gap between genres and their audiences, that makes Plaskett a strong draw for an organization looking to engage a wide demographic.

Bill, left, and Joel Plaskett. Pop and son pair up in Joel’s latest, Solidarity, out next month.
Photo: Courtesy of Joel Plaskett

This type of non-traditional programming is nothing new for the CPO. In the early 2000s the orchestra was facing some financial troubles, and needed to look for ways to grow their audience. Marion Garden, the director of sales and marketing for the CPO, says that by offering both classical and non-traditional programming the orchestra has found a winning formula. “It’s balancing. We can do some of the more challenging repertoire that the musicians love, but we’re also doing classical works that are accessible and people know and love from adverts and movies.”

Take CineConcerts, where the orchestra performs alongside classic films, and breathes new life into oft-forgotten scores. On May 19th and 20th, you can relive the adventures of Indiana Jones, as the orchestra accompanies Raiders of the Lost Ark at the Jubilee Auditorium.

Or consider the Rush Hour series. The performances are typically an hour long, have no intermissions, are alcohol-friendly, and adhere to an informal dress code. There’s also a section where you can follow along on your phone, and Twitter commentary that allows you to get real-time answers to any questions you might have. It’s an interesting marriage of a classical discipline and the modern preoccupation with technology, and it allows the CPO to engage a larger audience.

Joel Plaskett in Concert with the CPO is presented in partnership with Sled Island on January 24th at the Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium.

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