It is a rare thing for Owen Pallett to perform with a string ensemble. The Toronto violinist and songwriter has built a career that almost centers itself around going it alone. Much of the allure in his work is how this singular individual builds these sweeping soundscapes all with some foot pedals, an electric keyboard and violin. So seeing him share the stage to such a democratic extent Friday night at St. Paul's History Theatre definitely diminished his spotlight. However, it was all for the sake of enhancing every last one of the songs performed.
The string half of Brooklyn's multi-instrumentalist collective, yMusic, shifted from the role of supporting trio to spotlight performers. yMusic violist, and perhaps the busiest performer of the weekend, Nadia Sirota played aside violinist Rob Moose and cellist Clarice Jensen. After opening with three short, terse interpretations from American composer Marc Mellits' songbook, they lended their craft to the fragile voice of bassist and Dirty Projectors member Nat Baldwin. The trio's punctuated crescendos and instrumental moans were a beautiful support to Baldwin's delicate words. yMusic also had one more chance to shine prior to Pallett's introduction with their performance of composer Andrew Norman's 9th movement from his string trio work, "The Companion Guide to Rome." From the slow, muted hymnal strokes of the piece's introduction, the work eventually swelled into a blast of angular harmonies. It sounded like there were three more people on stage, a testament to the group's succinctness.
When Pallett finally took the stage, he didn't go towards his violin but instead sat in front of a piano. He claimed that his skills would be diminished in the presence of Moose's skills. But Pallett's appeal is not limited to his string smarts. His collection of songs demonstrated this operatic quality in his music. He has a penchant for cutting and fragmenting choral statements to a point where they begin to dissolve into the instrumentation. His fervent performance of "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt," a song requested by yMusic, preluded every burst of emotion with the anxiousness of these broken verses.
The most emotional event of the evening, however, may ultimately have been the tragedy that befell Pallett as he began his encore. Grabbing for the violin, which he had rested on his electronic keyboard the whole night, Pallett knocked it to the floor, splitting it at the neck. It culminated in a collective gasp and a look on mournful look on Pallett's face. Finally grasping at reality for everyone, he said it would be fixed by the end of tomorrow.
yMusic's full roster will be back at it again tonight as part of New Amsterdam Records' showcase (8:00 p.m. at MPR's UBS Forum in St. Paul.)