The woman sitting next to me at Sting's Symphonicity concert Wednesday night in Vancouver was a 43-year-old single mother of four who had missed a chance to see Sting play Calgary when she was about 13 and has regretted it ever since. So at the last minute, she dropped $270 Wednesday afternoon (yes tickets were still available) to correct a 30-year-old regret.
She got her money's worth.
Sting played a marathon 3-hour show (including a 20-minute intermission), to kick off his Symphonicity Tour, which features symphonic arrangements of many of his classic hits: from his days fronting The Police, and his more middle-of-the-road solo career. (The correct title of the tour, by the way, as per instructions from the concert promoter is: Symphonicity Tour: Sting, featuring the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by Steven Mercurio.)
"This is a very special night for me," Sting told the mature, well-heeled crowd. "This is the first night of a brand new adventure. This is the biggest band I've ever had." He was backed by a 45-piece orchestra, as well as his own three-piece band.
Dressed in charcoal grey, including a vest that resembled an unfinished suit jacket, Sting looked great, and was in excellent voice - still hitting high notes, still strong enough that on his third (!) encore, he belted out 'I Was Brought to My Senses' without any musical accompaniment, as the orchestra sat on stage and watched in awe.
But the real stars of the show were the arrangements: classical twists on classic hits that make Symphonicity a must-see. They were often gorgeous, sometimes playful and at moments deliciously surprising.
'Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic' presented a shivers-up-your-spine, elegant arrangement (not surprisingly it's the first single to be released from Sting's upcoming Symphonicities studio album).
'Englishman in New York', with its prominent clarinet passages, was a natural for a symphonic arrangement, and this was another success. The surprise toward the end was beautiful: who would have predicted the brass section in the back standing up and singing a call and response with Sting? (They looked thrilled. And rightly so.) Another surprise was 'Next To You': the hard-driving first song from The Police's first album soared with a string-and-percussion-heavy arrangement.
Other highlights were 'King of Pain', the lovely violin on 'Whenever I Say Your Name'; the big, dramatic arrangement for 'Russians'; the theatrical take on 'Moon Over Bourbon Street', evocative of a horror film; and the Flight of the Bumblebee-like strings on 'She's Too Good For Me'. 'Every Breath You Take' offered a quiet and surprising arrangement that showcased Sting's still excellent voice.
The opening for 'Message in a Bottle' was wonderful (part of the fun of the evening was figuring out what song the orchestra was playing, based on the opening bars) and later in the song it was great to hear a bit of the reggae-inspired guitar chords that made The Police so exciting back in the day.
But there were disappointments too. 'Roxanne', which could have been a show-stopper, was too subdued - reduced to forgettable adult contemporary pap. Thankfully, it was short. 'Fields of Gold', another fan favourite that would seem to lend itself to an orchestral interpretation, was pretty, but unremarkable.
The show, in fact, was uneven and really lagged in the middle, with too many lesser-known songs literally lulling some people to sleep (well, at least the guy on the other side of me, doing the tell-tale head bob).
Even Mercurio's exciting performance art-like conducting (the Maestro leaps and gestures and emotes - it's something that must be seen) couldn't keep the atmosphere alive.
And weirdly, Sting - a guy not lacking in the charisma or stage presence department - seemed a little uncomfortable, particularly at the beginning of the night. Maybe it was being confined to a small area at the centre of the stage, maybe it was not having an instrument in his hand for most of the night (does a tambourine count?), maybe it was opening night jitters. Also, the staged, lame jokes need to go (pretending he couldn't tell which song the orchestra was playing was just silly).
Speaking of uncomfortable, Sting's introduction to 'Russians' had some people squirming in their seats, and I'm sure I heard hissing. Sting was reminiscing about the inspiration for the Cold War-era song: a scientist friend in New York had access to Russian TV signals and they would watch this on Saturday nights - which was Sunday morning in the Soviet Union, when the children's programming was on. It gave Sting some comfort to think that the Russians, who were producing this excellent children's television, must love their children too, so maybe they wouldn't blow up the world after all. He remarked that he wished "our current ideological enemies" felt the same way. Cue the hissing. Awkward.
By the end of the night, though, all was forgiven and Sting was in his element: belting out tunes, interacting with Mercurio, shimmying away, smiling and comfortable finally in his own yoga-preserved skin.
"It's been a wonderful night for us," he said after his umpteenth bow, holding his hand over his heart.
For the audience, too.
© The Globe And Mail by Marsha Lederman