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Always Room for a Cello
Steve Bell’s Symphony Sessions with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra is an excellent offering from a musician of the highest calibre.

Steve Bell is one of Canada’s most successful independent musicians.  The Winnipeg-based singer-songwriter has sold in excess of 250,000 records and CDs since releasing his first solo album, Comfort My People, in 1989.  He has won numerous awards, including two Junos, and has been called “a Canadian musical treasure” by no less than Billboard, an American trade paper devoted to the music industry.

On Symphony Sessions, his latest CD, Bell collaborates with the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra (WSO).  The CD comes after what was supposed to have been a one-off concert with the WSO in November 2006.  It was so well-received, though, Bell decided to record the songs with the orchestra.

From the Beatles to thrash-metal quartet Metallica to whispered-folk icon Sufjan Stevens, the idea of popular musicians augmenting their music with orchestral instruments is not a new one.  It’s still an exciting one, though, and Symphony Sessions gives pianist/arranger Mike Janzen the chance to reinterpret 13 of Bell’s best-known songs.

The challenge when arranging orchestral instruments for a rock or folk artist is to serve the song tastefully and make it seem as though the instrumentation was there to begin with.  Here, Janzen succeeds masterfully.  “The Wellspring” and “Holy Lord” from 1992’s Deep Calls to Deep are the best examples of this.  While the two songs have a certain majesty about them in their original form, Janzen’s score elevates them to greater heights of beauty and expectant worship.

Although it borders on overproduction at times – one wonders why Bell didn’t just record the November 2006 Winnipeg concert and release that – Symphony Sessions is nonetheless an excellent offering from a musician who has always worked hard to ensure that the art he produces is of the highest calibre.

After just one listen to Symphony Sessions, even sceptics will agree there’s always room for a cello.

Aaron Epp is Canadian Mennonite’s national correspondent.

Originally published in Canadian Mennonite, February 18, 2008.




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