K.d. lang is an apt choice to kick off the L.A. Phil’s “Songbook” series at Disney Hall. Her most recent album, “Hymns of the 49th Parallel,” is a collection of songs by Canadian singer-songwriters; the album’s only fault is, as the title suggests, an overly reverential approach to the material, which flattened out some of the songs’ emotional thorniness.
At Disney Hall, as on the album, the lesser known the song, the better lang’s performance. Her versions of Neil Young’s “Helpless” and Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and “Bird on a Wire” were not lackluster, but she sang them as though they are ancient reliquaries too fragile to be exposed to air.
Songs by her contemporaries, such as Jane Siberry’s mysterious allegory “The Valley” and Ron Sexsmith’s “Fallen,” with its hazy melancholy, were not treated as sacred texts handed down from on high, and lang’s voice became warmer and more human-scaled. “Jericho,” an obscure Joni Mitchell song, was an inspired choice; the asymmetrical melody and oddly scanned lyrics of Mitchell’s later work came alive in lang’s voice.
Lang also became the latest pop singer to find herself bedeviled by Disney Hall. Her powerful yet beautifully modulated voice proved a perfect match for the room (she filled it without amplification during the encore of “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”), and Eumir Deodato’s arrangements, with their subtle interweaving of strings with lang’s touring band, would appear to be tailor made for Disney Hall’s tricky acoustics. But for most of the evening, guitarist Greg Leisz was little more than a rumor, robbing the music of its subtle balance between torch and twang.