With Aretha Franklin’s final album due this year, produced by no less than Stevie Wonder, it seems an appropriate time to examine and celebrate these two giants of music. In Signed, Sealed, Delivered the Perth Symphony Orchestra, along with the WAAPA Gospel Choir, delves into the back catalogue of these two greats to showcase not merely their work, but their lives as well. With Aretha having the voice, and Stevie having the songs, the audience was in for an innovative re-imagining of a number of soul, funk, pop and R&B classics.
However, shifting R&B from it’s roots to a more cultured arrangement can be a dangerous proposition. Even with a strong horn section and Gospel choir, how does an “18th century band” cover music born in clubs and record studios centuries later? When it comes to the crunch, it is passion and enthusiasm for the material performed that makes all the difference, and that’s what the PSO brought to Signed, Sealed, Delivered in spades. Despite some excellent early performances (especially by 13 year old Jordan Anthony as a young Stevie Wonder) it is appropriate that Sophie Forster broke through that wall of audience reservation and decorum with Aretha’s number from the Blues Brothers (1980), Think. From there on in, the audience was dancing in the aisles, as hit after hit from Wonder and Franklin came down the pipeline.
No surprise that Superstition was one of those, with Head of Contemporary Voice and Director of WAAPA Gospel Choir, Matt Allen, working the crowd to his utmost with the much beloved Stevie Wonder classic. Yet these revelries were certainly the pay-off for the careful work put in by the orchestra in those initial numbers. Obviously each song requires a distinct arrangement to work with the different range of instruments that the PSO provided, but those moments that highlighted this were incandescent. From the string arrangement adding a gentle pastoral re-imagining to the kitch I Just Called To Say I Love You, to the purely choral arrangement of I Knew You Were Waiting, these demonstrated the innovation and vast array of inventiveness on show.
However being the PSO, Signed, Sealed, Delivered is not just about the songs, but a history of the original artists behind them. Each song a window onto their life – their careers, their families, and their politics. Through the narrative we see how the art and artists are interlinked, and gain a growing appreciation for both.
Strangely enough both the show stoppers for the night come from rather unexpected sources, and from two extremes of the musical spectrum. For Stevie Wonder, the rendition of Pastime Paradise (which would be sampled heavily for Coolio’s Gangsta’s Paradise) was demonstrative of the lasting legacy of Wonder’s work. For Franklin it was a show of the singers’ raw power and emotion, as she stood in for an ill Pavarotti to sing Nessun Dorma. Here Sophie Forster gave a stunning recreation, as the sound equipment struggled to keep up with her octave changes and power, as the song catapults from depths to heights.
The night was a superb tribute, both to the artists that inspired it, and to those on stage performing.
Photos by Richard Jefferson Photography