Mary Chapin Carpenter told an audience of more than 1,000 at Helzberg Hall on Friday that the first time she performed at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts she was accompanied by a single acoustic guitar.
On Friday she was bolstered by the Kansas City Symphony.
The stirring collaboration included renditions of nine of the 10 selections on Carpenter’s 2014 album, “Songs From the Movie.” The project features orchestral makeovers of Carpenter’s most ambitious compositions.
Even during Carpenter’s successful run as a country artist in the 1990s, she never fit neatly into the format. Her work is more in keeping with Jimmy Webb than with George Strait.
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Carpenter’s sophisticated songs are about as country as a sushi dinner on the Country Club Plaza.
When the hits stopped coming, Carpenter embraced her artful side. “Songs From the Movie” and Friday’s concert are the culmination of a dramatic artistic transformation.
Assisted by ringers from the Kansas City jazz community, the Symphony sounded lustrous in its sympathetic rendering of the material.
The arrangements by guest conductor Vince Mendoza were lush but rarely overwrought. With extensive experience working in similar settings with artists ranging from Björk to Sting, Mendoza acted as a steadying presence.
Aside from occasional harshness from a slight over-amplification of Carpenter’s conversational singing, Friday’s musical partnership was entirely sublime.
Carpenter seemed comfortable without a guitar in her hands, but she admitted that one aspect of orchestral performances doesn’t come naturally to her.
After the orchestra opened the concert with a ravishing interpretation of a piece from Elmer Bernstein’s score for “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Carpenter said that “I feel a little like Scout Finch in a dress when I get ready for these symphony shows.”
Carpenter may relate to Harper Lee’s fictional tomboy, but she writes songs from the mature perspective of wizened adults who are painfully aware of the ravages of time.
She fretted that the passage of time is “covering all our dreams in rust” during “On and On It Goes” and repeatedly noted that “it’s getting late” as she sang “Come On Come On.”
Carpenter elevated life’s mundane moments into glorious epiphanies on other songs. An artful slice of Americana, “I Am a Town” is ideally suited to be performed at the Symphony’s Celebration at the Station concert on Memorial Day weekend.
A lively rendition of “The Hard Way” served as the encore. While the audience clapped along with the evening’s most familiar song, the 1993 hit seemed like a vestige of a past best left behind.
To Kill a Mockingbird Suite, On and On It Goes, Between Here and Gone, Ideas Are Like Stars, The Dreaming Road, I Am a Town, Come On Come On, Mrs. Hemingway, Only a Dream, Stones in the Road, 10,000 Miles, Goodnight America, The Hard Way.