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Arts and Entertainment

Singing and playing the blues

Orchestra ends on a vibrant blue note
Canadian blues artist Rita Chiarelli performs with the San Juan Symphony on Saturday night in its season finale.

“This is just a warning,” singer/songwriter Rita Chiarelli said Saturday night to a sold-out crowd in the Community Concert Hall. “I tend to set the guitar on fire.”

Figuratively, Chiarelli did just that. As the featured soloist in the San Juan Symphony Orchestra’s final concert of the season, she ignited an evening of blues, roots, gospel, folk, rock and R&B music that drew whoops, whistles and a mid-concert standing ovation from the audience. At the end, before an encore of a new song she was “road-testing,” Chiarelli graciously thanked music director Arthur Post, the musicians and the symphony board for inviting her to Colorado.

In a program brimming with her own music, the “Canadian goddess of the blues” won over 650-plus American fans. Chiarelli deserved every breathless “wow” as people could be heard leaving the concert hall.

Post encountered her when he conducted a similar program in Thunder Bay, Ontario. That orchestra produced a CD, “Uptown Goes Downtown Tonight,” which has won many awards. After opening the San Juan Symphony concert with an orchestral medley of blues tunes arranged by Chris Palmer, Post explained the genesis of bringing Chiarelli to Durango.

“This lady is the most soulful singer I’ve ever heard,” he said.

She soon substantiated his view by rendering four of her songs with a smoky voice that seemed a cross between Janis Joplin and Odetta. Chiarelli’s range is astonishing, rising from a comfortable contralto to a rare, high, spinning gospel soprano. More important, she sings with conviction, unspooling narratives of love, loss, memory and regret.

To her credit, she included some saucy post-regret songs that suggested the cool balance of experience and reflection.

After opening with hard-core songs about the pain of love, “I Can Change for You” and “Back to Blue,” she shifted to “Midnight in Berlin” and “You Don’t Say,” a song she wrote about meeting a former lover. After intermission, Chiarelli lightened the mood further with two good-riddance tunes: “Serves You Right” and “Loving You is Killing Me.”

For this reviewer, the combination of lament and resignation spiced with humor puts Chiarelli in a blues pantheon.

Post and his musicians augmented her blazing persona first with the rousing, jazzy overture, secondly, with “Lullaby,” a rarely heard Gershwin work transcribed for string orchestra. And lastly, with a Rock Medley arranged by Canadian musician Howard Cable. The rest of the concert belonged to Chiarelli, sometimes with orchestra and sometimes with just her guitar.

She spun out two lyrical ballads from “Cuore,” her unusual album based on Italian folk songs. She is the daughter of Italian immigrants, and early in her career, she spent time in the homeland. She sang these ballads in Italian with simplicity and great beauty.

She also included songs from her experiences performing at the Angola Maximum Security Prison in Louisiana. “These Four Walls” and “Rest My Bones” are both featured in the Bruce McDonald documentary: “Music from the Big House.”

The 90-minute film was shown Wednesday at the Durango Arts Center as part of the symphony’s preconcert series. Post introduced the film, and Chiarelli, fresh from her airport arrival, took questions afterward. The inclusion of two of her prison songs enhanced the formal concert immeasurably.

Saturday, she chose to end with a bittersweet rendering of “The Thrill is Gone.” Its dark recognition of coming to terms with life seemed to resonate with the audience. The choice seemed consistent with her persona of a woman who has lived deeply, accepted mistakes and wrong turns and relished fleeting joys.

Is it any wonder the audience embraced Chiarelli?

jreynolds@durangoherald.com. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.


“Symphony in Blue,” San Juan Symphony Orchestra, Arthur Post, music director, Canadian blues vocalist Rita Chiarelli, 7:30 p.m. April 26, Fort Lewis College Community Concert Hall.

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