Published May 15, 2012The Glenn Gould Prize is now recognized as one of the most prestigious international awards for the arts. Montreal's favourite bard, Leonard Cohen, was chosen as the prize's ninth laureate, and an illustrious grouping of musicians, actors and writers participated in this tribute gala.
On hand to accept the honour, Cohen was typically modest and classy. He presented his $50,000 prize to the Canada Council for the Arts, acknowledging the organization's early support of his work. During his acceptance speech, he went on to tell a funny anecdote about meeting Gould and declared, "I go into paroxysms of gratitude hearing others do my songs."
Cohen was surely thrilled when the evening's musical component kicked off with golden-voiced Texan troubadour Jimmie Dale Gilmore's poignant reading of "Tower of Song." Whoever programmed the gala did a superb job of mixing in American and Canadian artists, with younger stars and veterans alike covering Cohen classics with genuine respect while adding their own subtle touches.
Justifiably receiving perhaps the loudest ovation was John Prine. The American country-folk hero shone on his own "Souvenirs," "Bird on a Wire" and a riveting duet with Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies on "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong." Calling the show "a career highlight," Timmins and the Junkies also electrified with a sizzling take on "Avalanche." Basia Bulat and Serena Ryder impressed with sparse readings of "If It Be Your Will" and "Sisters of Mercy," respectively, with Cohen protege Anjani Thomas delivering a sweetly mellow "Crazy to Love You."
The night's weakest performance came from James McMurtry on a sped-up version of "Closing Time" prefaced by attempts at humour that fell flat. Accompanied by Travis Good and three fetching femme backing singers, Greg Keelor overcame a slight flub amidst an otherwise powerful version of "Famous Blue Raincoat." Good and Keelor also added some atmospheric guitar to actor Gordon Pinsent's resonant narration of an original poem.
It was interesting to note how many of the singers (and guest readers) sported grey hair, something that added gravitas to their renditions of Cohen words and lyrics crammed with hard-earned wisdom and insight. Actor Alan Rickman drew loud cheers with his dramatic reading; Colm Feore was a skilful host; Michael Ondaatje reflected on the impact Cohen's early writing had on him; and Melissa Auf der Maur was charmingly eloquent in her remarks. Former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson, however, was typically self-aggrandizing in her remarks.
Closing out a spectacular evening in fitting fashion was Adam Cohen. Jokingly introducing himself as "the son of Céline Dion," he was joined by Ryder on "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye," then led a large onstage cast through a rousing version of "So Long, Marianne" (wisely, no artist here attempted the over-exposed "Hallelujah"). The audience then gave the man of the night another standing ovation.
There is no shortage of Leonard Cohen tribute albums and concerts out there, but few could match the high standards set by this highly memorable event.