In Search of a Third Stream

Brad Mehldau and Sofie von Otter on stage at the Konzerthaus

On The Town | Philip Ellison | May 2011

Climbing the stairs to the Grosser Saal at Vienna’s Konzerthaus (3., Lothringerstraße 20) one is reminded that this massive edifice is not simply imperial in its imposing appearance and massive size, but is in fact one of the final, crowning achievements of Kaiser Franz Josef’s public works. At the landing midway up to the Parterre level, a plaque commemorates the building’s construction in the waning days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Built nearly a century ago, completed in 1913, the Konzerthaus was dedicated on October 19, 1913, a scant 10 months before the August 1914 outbreak of what was known as the Great War.

On its opening night, the Konzerthaus program included a (then) contemporary work by Richard Strauss and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony from the Classical repetoire. With a single stroke the Konzerthaus identity was formed, and a tradition established, a living practice embracing present day innovation while sustaining the  masterworks of those who went before for presentation to contemporary audiences.

Fast forward a generation, to the mid-1940s and the end of yet another Great War, WWII. The Big (read "dance") Bands were dying, and jazz was about to morph from a craze infecting the young into to a performance art, for which the audience was seated and still, save for the odd bouncing knee and the sound of fingers snapping in time. The premier jazz orchestras and small groups were becoming America’s modern classics, with composers such as Duke Ellington and Stan Kenton blurring the distinctions between entertainment and high culture.

In time, their influence would spread world-wide as the search for a "Third Stream" gains momentum, eventually resulting in a thousand noble experiments, and the occasional artistic and commercial success.

It is fitting then that the current concert series "The Art of the Song" would include a program of love songs, bringing new life to a popular idiom through the pairing of Brad Mehldau on piano and Mezzo-Soprano Anne Sofie von Otter. By design, the concert stuck to the classical lieder in its first hour and, following a short break, turned on the contrast and fast-forwarded to include quite a dazzling array of jazz and pop tunes. "Jazzy" rather than pure, it was a night rich in tradition, a night on which the Konzerthaus itself was the star...

Appearing truly "unplugged" and without amplification, Von Otter and Mehldau filled this massive space, in much the same way as it must have been on opening night, two decades before Bing Crosby taught the world how to use a microphone. The night’s program included works by Johannes Brahms ("Liebeslieder Walzer"), Antonio Carlos Jobim (a lovely "How Insensitive""), Elvis Costello (a mournful "Baby Plays Around"), Lennon and McCartney, Edvard Grieg, Michael Legrand, Joni Mitchell (von Otter’s voice well suited to "Marcie"), Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius (with zest, in her native Swedish), and an interesting cycle by Mehldau himself, with a couple of surprises at the close.

Seated at the grand Bösendorfer, which looked for all the world like a gleaming stretch Lincoln Continental, the classically-trained Mehldau began the evening with an informed and inventive take on classical Lieder, sans improvisation but with a sensitivity beautifully aligned with the vocalist. Singing in German, Swedish, and Norwegian, the statuesque Anne Sofie von Otter performed with authoritative poise, charisma, and a directness that cut across the stylistic and historical gaps. Then Mehldau went solo between songs with a selection from Brahms Opus 118. Dedicated to Clara Schumann – a kind of a "love song" if you will - this late solo piano work is more introspective than earlier "virtuosic" works, but fit Mehldau, and the evening, like a glove.

Opening the second half of the program, von Otter sang five Mehldau songs, with lyrics by the American poet Sara Teasdale, a contemporary of Richard Strauss. The romantic lyrics provided an open, vernacular base for Mehldau’s passionate score, his ear for melody, and von Otter’s most impassioned singing.

If there was a false note during what was a very grand tour, it was hearing the well-worn Beatles tune, "Blackbird" toward the end of the night. Overly familiar, the song puts any performer at a disadvantage, and while Mehldau’s solo improvisation on the song’s slim frame was thoughtful, even dissonant, with a hard left hand filling in for the bass and rhythm, here von Otter sounded a bit by-the-numbers, connecting neither with the heart of the tune nor her audience.

This however, did not dissuade anyone with ears to hear; these two made believers of us all, living the Konzerthaus reverence for tradition, but gaily. So much so that the crowd demanded (and got) not one but two encores, first Jerome Kern’s "I Won’t Dance" and, lastly, and ever-so-slyly, a lovely tune from Richard Rodgers’s The Sound of Music, a quite up-to-the minute and out of Salzburg "Something Good," which was far better than that!

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    the vienna review May 2011