Monday, February 16, 2009

Crossover dream

If you're like me, the thought of an opera diva attempting to "cross over" to pop always gives you pause. The ingrained discipline of classical singing - its control and clarity and formal attack - do not translate easily to the casual style of the pop idiom. So I entered with trepidation last Friday's Celebrity Series concert, which featured the luminous Swedish mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter (at left) in a program split between art song, jazz commissions from Brad Mehldau, and popular standards.

But I shouldn't have worried. Von Otter turned out to be that rarity - the diva who can swing as well as sing. Perhaps she's able to leap the fence because even her classical phrasing is marked by a subtle intelligence that's slightly conversational, at least in comparison to other singers; indeed, her opening suite of songs from Sibelius, Hahn and Schumann was startlingly direct in its emotion and decidedly free in its nuance.

It was, in fact, one of the most unfailingly lovely sets of art song I've ever heard. The opening six selections, from Sibelius, were a real surprise - the great Finnish composer's songs are rarely performed today, but this half-dozen, all of them superlatively haunting, hint that a major re-evaluation is overdue. As one might expect from Sibelius, the imagery was mostly from nature, and was used as a mirror for inner mood - usually of romantic isolation, loss, or rue. The composer has a reputation for being somewhat antipathetic to the piano, but that was hard to credit here - perhaps due to the sensitivities of von Otter's long-time collaborator, the wonderful Bengt Forsberg (who, in a dark suit with blazingly red socks, played some intriguing tributes to Haydn by the likes of Ravel and Dukas between "numbers"). Von Otter's phrasing and intonation were simultaneously lush and specific (the original language of the songs, oddly, is Swedish [Note - a reader informs me that Sibelius lived in a part of Finland which was Swedish-speaking, so this isn't so odd!]); she carried on with an even more ravishing set from the French composer Reynaldo Hahn, some of which I'd heard before, but never performed with more quiet refinement. The first half wrapped with selections from Robert Schumann, some familiar, some less so, but again the performances were peerless and convincingly dramatic; von Otter was charmingly witty throughout "The Fortune Teller," then appropriately grim in "The Soldier," and once again full of those staples of art song, yearning and rue, in "The Cowherd's Farewell."

Then Forsberg disappeared, and with him, perhaps, a certain exquisitely eccentric musicality. For while Brad Mehldau (at right) is a superbly accomplished jazz pianist, he's not quite in Forsberg's class technically, and his songs, though complex and thoughtfully crafted, didn't betray a truly individual musical voice. And rather than loosened-up art song, they sometimes felt like buttoned-down jazz. Part of the problem was the lack of consonance between music and text (it was probably unfortunate that Mehldau chose poems from three poets, Philip Larkin, Sara Teasdale, and e e cummings, whose poetic "voices" are well-known). His opening song, although it featured an intriguingly abrupt change in mood halfway through, nevertheless felt nothing like Larkin's own word-music, which was somehow mildly irritating (perhaps if you didn't know Larkin this never would have occurred to you). His musical translations of Teasdale and cummings were closer to the mark, but still ever so slightly generic. As I mentioned above, von Otter "let go" only slightly, but to wonderful effect - still, it was hard not to recall the greater heights she'd reached not moments before.

The final portion of the program had been advertised as "American popular song," but wound up being largely devoted to Euro-pop. The first offering, Richard Rodgers's "Something Good," from The Sound of Music, proved the most convincing - I remember the song as being treacle from the movie, but von Otter and Mehldau made it a small miracle of wistfulness. Ms. von Otter eschewed a microphone, and seemed to actually grow softer for this portion of the program, drawing us into intimately-scaled, sophisticated readings of such melancholy pop baubles as "Walking My Baby Back Home," (in Swedish!) and Michel Legrand's "The Summer Knows" and "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" One couldn't argue with the craft or the charm of the performances - still, after two numbers from Michel Legrand, one sensed that musically the evening had grown a bit thin. The good news was that Mehldau seemed freed by the harmonic simplicities of these numbers, and had devised all sorts of little surprises in his accompaniment; he also began to open up rhythmically, which is what jazz pianists should always do. If he had brought the same liberty to his "art songs," he might have crossed the same bridge that Ms. von Otter navigated so artfully.

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