Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Anne Sofie von Otter and Her Merry Swedish Gentlemen: Review

Esplanade Concert Hall
Saturday (6 December 2008)

A greatly edited version of the review
was published in The Straits Times on 8 December 2008

Here was a Christmas concert with a difference. Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter, well loved for her interpretations of baroque oratorios and German lieder, showed a side of herself that one may not have suspected.

First her merry band of minstrels trooped in playing traditional Swedish folk music, setting the stage for Otter in a couple of songs sung in Swedish, including one by Benny Anderson, better known as a member of ABBA. Then came the obligatory Christmas medley, starting with The Christmas Song, the one that begins “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…” Through all of this, Otter sang with a microphone in hand, barely extending her fabled vocals.

Her merry men also had opportunities of their own, accordionist Espen Leite (the only Norwegian of the gang) shined in Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango, and Torbjorn Nasbom improvised on a nyckelharpa (left), a traditional stringed instrument with keys carried like a machine gun and bowed like a fiddle. Quirky but charming.

Otter’s mezzo is a warm and soothing presence, always reassuringly hypnotic. Applied to favourites like Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas and Silent Night, the effect was to soothe the savage beast and melt the hardest of hearts.

Those who longed for her non-amplified voice got it early in the second half. In a one-woman Santa Lucia procession, Otter paraded through the hall singing the popular Neapolitan melody – so simple yet mesmerising. An equally lovely group of songs, including the lilting Mary’s Cradlesong by Max Reger, were sensitively accompanied by longtime collaborator Bengt Forsberg, who also performed the Bach-Hess Jesu Joy Of Man’s Desiring and Grainger’s Sussex Mummers’ Christmas Carol.

More hair was let down, literally by Svante Henryson (his wild locks a throwback to the Beatles) whose cello solo was accompanied by the infectious foot-stamping by all on stage. The balance of the evening was filled with unashamed pops – Charles Trenet’s Boom!, Pablo Ruiz’s Sway, Zequinha de Abreu’s Tico-Tico No Fuba, and more ABBA, finishing appropriately with Thank You For The Music.

The versatile Otter was positively rocking. What had begun like a classical concert concluded like a rock gig. Wasn’t it Seneca and Felix Mendelssohn who said, “True pleasure is a serious business”?

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