top of page

Cécile McClorin Salvant

Salvant soars for RCM’s “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage”


MAR 30, 2023 | COMMUNITY

Cécile McLorin Salvant by Karolis Kaminskas
Cécile McLorin Salvant by Karolis Kaminskas

For the Royal Conservatory of Music’s Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage concert series, Cécile McLorin Salvant took advantage of Koerner Hall’s dynamic capacity. Her third time at the hall (having debuted in 2013 and returned in 2019) this performance follows two back-to-back albums released by Nonesuch Records: last year’s Ghost Song and last week’s Mélusine, as well as an eclectic mix of covers.

Starting with Ghost Song’s title track, a blues ballad ruminating on an undead relationship. Keeping the acapella intro, Salvant reinterpreted the intimate haunt on the album’s Rhodes-accompanied version as the third act of an exorcism, with rattling percussion by Keita Ogawa and Sullivan Fortner striking dissonant chords up and down the octaves of a grand piano. This intensity set the tone for the rest of the evening.

After introducing the band—Ogawa and Fortner, as well as Alexa Tarantino on Flute, Marvin Sewell on guitars, and, audience-favorite, Yasushi Nakamura on double bass—Salvant introduced “Dame Iseut” a trobairitz (female troubador) poem from 12th century Southern France, translated from Occitan — the language of her mother’s ancestors — into Haitian Kreyòl by Salvant and her father. Exploring the desire to forgive, Salvant translated the sentiment of the song into English for the audience, “if you can make them repent, you can make me convert [to forgiving them].” This is the last song from Mélusine, a song cycle based on a legendary woman who becomes half-snake on Saturdays.

The Mélusine’s story goes that, after marrying a sad man in the woods and granting him success and ten children on condition of him never seeing her on her snake day, he breaks their agreement. She subsequently becomes a dragon and flies out the window. Salvant also sang the album’s opener, “Est-ce ainsi que les hommes vivent?” a groovy chanson by Léo Ferré—based on “Bierstube Magie allemande” by Louis Aragon—sung from the point of view of the trifling husband and foreshadowing his own tragedy.

Salvant has a deep knowledge of different musical vernaculars, finding and writing songs that delight and resonate thematically. Despite their song's Mediaeval setting, the music pulls from an international lexicon of rhythms and harmonies, even including a brooding Celine Dion deep-cut “Petite musique terrienne” closing on an excellent, melancholy solo by Fortner.

Beyond material from Ghost and Melusine, Salvant brought a wide repertoire: including a galloping by way of Rzewski arrangement of the Judy Garland-standard “Trolley Song,” featuring Tarantino doing the part of the train; an electric Latin arrangement of “Until” by Sting, with thundering solos by Nakamura and Ogawa; and a rousing cover of Nina Simone’s “Ain't Got No, I Got Life” driven by Sewel’s guitar. Salvant would select songs as if they were a whimL “Let’s dooooo.... ‘Barbara Song,’” a Weill and Brecht parable of the dangers of waiting around for love until you wind up with an asshole. Salvant is the perfect Brecht heroine: funny, passionate, and wary of the world’s venom.

Salvant has great elasticity in the textures she plays with, making any persona she inhabits turn demure or powerful by rounding or tightening her tone. She also has the range and accuracy to make every note serve a song’s narrative and still keep it surprising, even to her incredibly tight band. Her and Fortner, in particular, share a badinage that never hinders the music’s momentum, instead giving it a foundation to develop Salvant’s characterization. It’s an incredible privilege to see an artist of that calibre have fun like this.