Went to a concert last night by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. She isn’t in the list of my top ten or maybe even fifty singers, and I didn’t know a single one of the songs performed, and while a couple were pretty good I don’t think they’re going into heavy rotation on the car stereo any time soon. But you know what? I had a blast; concerts are almost always worth going to. Herewith some notes on why, and on some of the music.
Ms. von Otter is a mezzo and the program was all twentieth-century except for a touch of Berlioz and Schubert: Peterson-Berger, Stenhammar, Grainger, Chaminade, Mahler, Korngold, and Kurt Weill. Here are some good reasons to do this:
Drama · When a piano player and a singer stand up there on stage with no microphones or light-show or costume changes or dance routines and undertake to entertain you for a couple of hours, well that’s a high-wire act with no net. The sense of drama at a classical concert adds, for me, an edge to the proceedings.
Sound · I’m a pretty serious audiophile, and pretty serious audiophiles are often despondent because you can so easily drop tens of thousands on your setup and it still doesn’t sound anything like the real thing. The venue was the Chan Centre at UBC, which is very intimate and has decent acoustics. In a room like this, a big Steinway like Mr. Forsberg was playing has a weight and pulse and outright snarl that speakers just don’t do. And those of you who don’t frequent the opera may not know how overwhelming a world-class classical singer can be. Ms. von Otter had recourse only rarely to the full open-throated operatic high note—which is appropriate—but on the one or two occasions when she really leaned into one, well as I said, home audio doesn’t go there.
New Music · I like going to a concert of old favorites, but there aren’t that many ways to discover good new music, and the concert stage is one of the best. A lot of the material was pretty ho-hum, but Berlioz’ La Mort d’Ophélie, a long song previously unknown to me, is a keeper.
There were three songs from Cécile Chaminade (1857-1944) a Frenchwoman who was most famous as a pianist, but wrote lots of fine music too; Ann Sofie told us that that she retired young but lived to a great (but lonely Ann Sofie) age. Had she lived in the golden age of Pop, she’d be a millionaire, the songs are light-hearted and melodious and give the singer a lot of room to work; Anne Sofie and Bengt have done a whole album of these things, I may decide to snap it up.
Finally, the performers had immensely more fun with the Kurt Weill than the rest, and thus so did the audience; Anne Sofie got to vamp it up and slink around the piano a bit, and project some smoky-low notes that sounded awfully good.
The Real Thing · All recordings are to some degree a barrier between you and the music. All electric devices are to some degree a barrier between you and the music. And I speak as one who likes electronic artifice as in for example Moby. But bear in mind that for every human generation born before the twentieth century, music was what happened when live human beings set the air in motion with their bodies and voices. And there’s still nothing like it, check it out sometime.