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It would be an unfair stereotype to suggest country star Brett Kissel doesn’t appreciate the symphony.
Unfair and untrue.
While Kissel’s first love is country music and he tends to write earnest, down-to-earth tunes about typical mainstream country fare such as rural pride, family bonds, drinking whisky and life on the ranch, he has admired orchestral music ever since he heard Glen Campbell’s grandiose arrangement of Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman. For years, he has wanted to perform his tunes backed by a symphony. So while his two-night run with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on Nov. 17 and 18 at the Bella Concert Hall and Jack Singer Concert Hall, respectively, may be his CPO debut, it seems a long-time coming for the artist.
“I just realized the power that a symphony orchestra has when it’s paired with popular music,” says Kissel, in a phone interview from his ranch in northeast Alberta. “I’ve seen many symphony shows around the world and I’ve always wanted to do this. As I was making my goals at the beginning of this year, I sat down with my manager and my agent and said ‘I need to do a symphony show.’ It was my agent who said ‘You should work with the Calgary Philharmonic. The CPO is truly one of the best in North America and they have an extraordinary reputation.’ It came from my genuine love of pairing different genres with an orchestra in the background.”
The problem with harbouring a long-term desire to perform with an orchestra is whittling down the sets to a manageable number of songs. This is a particular problem for an artist with a deep canon of material that spans more than a decade.
“It was the hardest setlist that I’ve ever had to do in my entire life because I’ve waited for this moment for so long and I only get 15 or 20 songs or something like that,” he says. “I’ve released 22 songs to radio and they’ve all gone Top 10 or No. 1, so many gold records, so many platinum records – that’s not me being conceited, because that’s not what Canadians do. But how do I select songs, because it’s not just my own material? I’ve always wanted to do particular songs with an orchestra that I’ve heard on my playlists. I made a vow if I get a chance to do a show with a symphony, I’m going to do this song.”
So while Kissel doesn’t want to reveal his entire setlist, he does say that among his ambitious plans for the two-night run is a medley of Glen Campbell songs, which will include Rhinestone Cowboy, Galveston, By the Time I Get to Phoenix and, of course, Wichita Line.
The CPO does have a long history backing a wide variety of artists, everyone from Serena Ryder to Joel Plaskett to Broadway star Bernadette Peters. The list also includes a number of country artists over the years, such as the late Ian Tyson, Paul Brandt and Corb Lund.
Marc Stevens, CEO and president of Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, says the key to this collaboration is not rehearsal time – this is hard to organize with an 80-piece orchestra and busy artists – but with preparation. Given that the CPO is made up of top-tier musicians, its players are more than capable of conquering any genre thrown at them. The key is to get the meticulously plotted charts ahead of time.
“The arrangements have been done way ahead of time,” says Stevens. “I imagine with the charts, I assume Brett has heard them in some form somewhere, even if was a computerized mock-up of them. So he’ll have some idea. Usually, the arranger won’t be trying to throw him through a loop, they’ll be looking to faithfully recreate the song he is doing but with the extra wonderful, multi-coloured layer of the orchestra instruments. The orchestra players would have had that music now for at least six weeks. That’s one of our deals. They get to look at it in advance. Of course, we’ve been doing a different concert, sometimes two, every week. So the musicians are regularly collecting music and taking a look at it and becoming really familiar with that. There’s a whole bunch of absolutely creme-de-la-creme experts, including Brett and his folks, coming together.”
For Kissel, settling on a setlist was perhaps further complicated by the fact he has a new album out with fresh material he is eager to play. West is the third in a planned four-part series he calls The Compass Project. Each album has a specific theme or thread. Released earlier this year, South is filled with Kissel’s hallmark mainstream country, while East was a stripped-down, singer-songwriter album. West, released last week, has Kissel exploring some of the historic Western themes and subgenres of country music, while the upcoming North, set for release on Dec. 1, is a live album featuring a number of his hits.
West mixes covers – including George Fox’s Here’s Hoping (They’ll Always Be A Cowboy) and sweetly sung rendition of Witchita Line – with originals, from odes to playing cribbage and musical hero George Strait to deeply personal songs about family. It opens with the lively Missin’ You in San Antone, a pitch-perfect Western swing number, leading to an Alberta-proud ballad called Oil and Cattle featuring guests George Canyon, Dom Amero and Brad Johner. There’s also an epic spoken-word tune called Legacy, based on Kissel’s maternal grandfather, a rancher who revealed his will to his family after being diagnosed with cancer. Kissel says the song was therapeutic and bluntly describes it as being about how “greed destroyed our family farm up in St. Paul.”
For the CPO concerts, Kissel says he will include only a few new ones in the setlist. He wants the shows to encompass his entire career.
“Quite frankly, I know there’s going to be moments that are going to be emotional,” Kissel says. “Because I wrote these songs when I was a teenager or I wrote these songs when I was in the highest of highs or the lowest of lows and now I get to hear them with one of the most respected orchestras in North America. The level of gratitude and the level of joy I’m going to feel … I don’t know if I will even be able to describe it.”
Brett Kissel will perform with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on Nov. 17 at the Bella Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m. and Nov. 18 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall at 7:30 p.m.