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Review: SSO and Sarah Slean provide a captivating snapshot of Joni Mitchell tunes at TCU Place

Updated: Oct 29, 2023

by Scott Roos

photos by Julie Isaac Photography

An emotive Slean, swayed to the rhythm of the music as her hands softly caressed the air (photo by Julie Isaac Photography)

As a delicate flurry of snow began to gently cloak the streets of Saskatoon this past Saturday, Oct. 28th, an appreciative audience took in the warm musical embrace of Juno nominated singer-songwriter Sarah Slean, accompanied by the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra (SSO), under the direction of young lion conductor Karl Hirzer, at the cozy, yet venerable TCU Place. Slean and the orchestra were in fine form in a concert meant to commemorate the 80th birthday of Saskatoon's greatest export Joni Mitchell with a powerful, artful celebration of song. Entitled “A Case of You” the performance largely explored works from Mitchell’s Both Sides Now and Travelogue albums which were released in the early 2000’s.

Opening the evening with the Jay Gorney/Sidney Clare penned “You’re My Thrill”, followed by the Mack Gordon/Harry Warren jazz crossover classic “At Last”, Slean swayed to and fro, softly caressing the air, to the delicate, lilting and appropriately intimate tones laid down by the orchestra. The arrangements, penned by Vincent Mendoza, provided the ideal backdrop to reverently and eloquently frame both the Mitchell originals and also the songs that the artist had made her own on the aforementioned albums. Sonically, we're talking a sort of Chet Baker with Strings-esque jazzy undertones but, at the same time, feet firmly planted on classical soil.

Apart from Slean herself, standouts included a brilliant section of SIX french horns, a very “on point” rhythm section (Slean seemed pleased as she lauded them more than once during the concert), the splendid saxophone solos of Calgary based Mark DeJong, and the savoury trumpet acrobatics of Saskatoon’s own Dean McNeill. In short, it was stylistically music of the highest order proving that Saskatoon has a lot of incredibly talented people who reside there.

Slean, Hirzer and DeJong delighted the Saskatoon crowd (photo by Julie Isaac Photography)

Slean, staying mostly in her middle register, provided a snapshot of the more mature, sophisticated, elder stateswoman version of Mitchell whilst providing her own interpretations to the songbook. Slean’s voice was in tune, well balanced and in firm control. The phrasing, the depth of emotion was all there and proved immediately captivating to the listener. Slean’s banter between songs was respectful, as she, at times, almost appeared in awe of Mitchell’s songwriting prowess with comments like “I can’t believe she wrote this when she was in her 20’s” and “This one, if I had to choose, would be my favourite.”.

It’s indeed a powerful testimony to songs like “River”, “Woodstock”, “Blue”, “The Circle Game” to name a few, all of which were performed by Slean and the SSO, that they can still be as poignant as the day they were penned. The younger Mitchell writes from an arguably more vulnerable state of almost innocent naivety with the older Mitchell interpreting her works from a reflective, sage, and wise point of view as evidenced on Both Sides Now and Travelogue. That’s the beauty of Joni Mitchell in a nutshell - she has the unique ability to somehow enable a fresh take on her own work but, at the same time, not lessen the impact of the original versions. This is what the SSO and Slean set out to achieve on this night as they were put through their paces by Mendoza’s arrangements: provide "both sides now" (pun intended) of the proverbial coin. They achieved this in spades, making for an extraordinarily entrancing evening and one that most of those in attendance will likely not forget any time soon.

The SSO’s next performance entitled “Rachmaninoff Dances” is slated for Saturday, November, 25th. It will feature Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances, op. 45 as well as Vincent Ho’s Whimsical Concerto of Fanciful Birds: Concerto for Saxophone, Orchestra, and Spatialized Saxophone Ensemble which will feature saxophone soloist Timothy McAllister. For those interested in checking out more local to Saskatchewan content presented by the SSO, several local singers (including Checkout Queens' own Oli Guselle) will feature in a special performance of Handel’s Messiah, on December 15th at Knox United Church. There’s “Sask Celebration” at TCU Place on March 23rd and “YXE Divas” on April 20th that should prove interesting for fans of the local music scene. For the full slate of SSO Season 93 events, click here.

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