Performing in a classier place than usual with a fleet of musicians behind him working on union time, Rufus Wainwright didn't shoot his mouth off nearly as much as he usually does during his elegant and dramatic two-set performance Saturday night with the Minnesota Orchestra at Orchestra Hall.
In the one instance when he did go on a brief political tangent, though, the 44-year-old piano-pop tunesmith was met with protest by one of the orchestra's veteran members, principal trumpeter Manny Laureano, who stormed off stage.
The awkward moment came midway through the second set, as Wainwright sat at the grand piano and introduced "Going to a Town," one of many fan favorites performed on Saturday — essentially a greatest-hits show with the added orchestration.
"I'm so tired of you, America," is famously/infamously the refrain in the Juno Award-nominated 2007 song, which also offers lines questioning Christians intolerant of same-sex marriage. (Wainwright, a Toronto native and New York resident, has been married to husband Jörn Weisbrodt for five years and they are raising a daughter together, Viva).
Wainwright actually kept his comments relatively brief and, by his standards, rather innocuous, saying he had refrained from political talk at shows in prior months but was "a little in shock over what happened last night," a reference to the GOP tax plan that passed in Congress overnight.
"It's a call to arms," Wainwright said. "We have to fight for this country."
Even before the short speech was finished, Laureano conspicuously rose up from his seat in the back row of the stage, swung his arm in an exasperated gesture, put his horn down and walked off toward a rear exit. Conductor Sarah Hicks and other members of the orchestra offered no visible reaction and carried on without him.
Reached by phone Monday morning, Laureano explained he was already mad that Wainwright "mocked" the performance of "Cantique de Noël" earlier in the show, aka the original French version of "Oh Holy Night."
The singer made light of the awkward French-to-English literal translation of the song (he stuck to the French lyrics), and he seemed a tad put off to have to sing it at all, saying, "One of the requirements for this evening's performance was I had to do a Christmas song." The concert was sold amid this year's holiday programming.
"The evening was already too snarky," Laureano said. So by the time Wainwright got around to the political talk, the trumpeter added, "It got incredibly self-indulgent."
"He's an angry dude that seems to have life all figured out, not the kind of guy we need to look to for philosophy," he said. "I found it to be beyond the pale of what that evening should be about. It's a time of the year we're supposed to all come together."
A major portion of the audience actually did unite after Wainwright finished singing "Going to a Town" and gave him the only mid-set standing ovation of the night.
A New York native whose tenure in the Minnesota Orchestra goes all the way back to 1981, Laureano was already known among orchestra watchers to be a conservative voice in the lineup. A quick glance at his Twitter feed and you'll see recent posts lambasting Rosie O'Donnell, MSNBC, and newly sidelined ABC News reporter Brian Ross.
Laureano said he sent texts and emails to his colleagues after the performance apologizing for "leaving them at a disadvantage." He had not yet heard about any repercussions for his protest from orchestra management, but he said, "Obviously my contract says I'm not supposed to walk off stage during a performance."
In a statement offered Monday afternoon, Minnesota Orchestra representatives did not address the question of repercussions, but they did defend Wainwright's decision to speak his mind at Orchestra Hall.
"It doesn't happen very often, but we honor the fact that guest artists will sometimes offer politically-minded comments as part of their performance — especially in the case of an issues-oriented songwriter like Rufus Wainwright," the statement read.
"We believe Saturday night's audience knew what to expect from Wainwright's performance. We also understand that our musicians might politically disagree with an artist; we're not aware that a musician has previously walked offstage in this way, but Manny's brass colleagues stepped up in the moment and carried on with a great performance for the audience, which is our priority."