It’s always enlightening to see what a superstar does when given the chance to choose an entire program of his or her own pet material rather than bow to the convention of cherry-picking several decades’ worth of standards. That’s precisely what Elton John did on the opening night of a Gotham stint — his first Stateside perfs in front of a full orchestra — that seems intended to re-establish him as a singer-songwriter rather than an entertainer.
John delivered the show — which focused almost exclusively on pre-1976 material — in more-or-less chronological fashion, offering brief anecdotes about each song as he went along. Interestingly, he front-loaded the two-hour set with some of his darker works, opening with “60 Years On,” a rumination on mortality that’s markedly changed its tenor since he wrote it in his 20s.
A 99-piece student orchestra augmented John remarkably well, traversing Paul Buckmaster’s whisper-to-a-scream arrangements with an ease belying their collective lack of experience. Subtle brass punctuation brought a vaguely spaghetti Western feel to the rarely performed “The King Must Die,” while the anxiousness of “Madman Across the Water” (which John delivered in suitably wild-eyed manner) was underscored by a restive string arrangement.
An ensemble this outsized — in addition to the orchestra, John employed a 60-strong choir — would seem predisposed to getting out of control. And while there were occasional lapses into treacle (“Tiny Dancer”) and bombast (an ill-advised “Philadelphia Freedom”), an admirable restraint was in evidence throughout. That moderation extended to Elton himself: Modestly dressed and seated at the fore of a rather barren stage, he chose to forego performance antics and carve deep into the marrow of the material at hand.
As such, his piano playing became the focus of songs like “Burn Down the Mission” and “Border Song,” both of which resonated with an urgency often missing from John’s more middle-of-the-road gigs. Yes, there were concessions to showbiz, but even those — a duet with Renee Fleming on an encore version of “Your Song” — were handled with taste virtually unrivaled in the usually dicey realm of rock-classical fusion.
The show was taped for a special to air on Bravo later this year.