Anne Sofie von Otter has never been one to shy away from new adventures. She is as well known for her collaborations with Elvis Costello and her recording of songs by her fellow countrymen in the pop supergroup ABBA as she is recognized for her interpretations of such composers in the classical canon as Handel, Mozart, Sibelius, and Mahler.
Now she is teaming up with jazz pianist and composer Brad Mehldau in a new collaboration that will have its world premiere at Carnegie Hall February 11. She spoke about her work with Mehldau in a phone conversation from Vienna, where she was rehearsing Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress with conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt for a new Martin Kusej production.
Anastasia Tsioulcas: So how did you come to know Brad Mehldau?
Anne Sofie von Otter: I first heard his music on the radio, and pretty soon I had a big collection of his albums. He's such a wonderful musician, but I didn't know whether or not he'd ever be interested in working with a classical singer. Then he did that project with Renee Fleming [the highly lauded song cycle Songs from The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and premiered there in 2005, and later recorded for Nonesuch], which made me think that perhaps he might possibly be willing to take something on with me.
AT: You're both very busy, world-renowned artists with impossibly demanding schedules. How did you go from "Gee, wouldn't this be interesting" to actually sitting down with Brad?
ASVO: [laughing] It's funny how fast things started coming together! One day I was having lunch with Jeremy Geffen, Carnegie's Director of Artistic Planning. I mentioned my idea to Jeremy, and then within literally 10 minutes I had Brad's telephone number. Shortly later I was on my way over to his place to meet with him.
AT: What do you find so compelling about his work?
ASVO: There's a lovely, lyrical quality about his compositions which I can relate to. There are so many jazz styles that are interesting: such as free jazz: but it's not really what I personally find the most compelling. Mehldau is one of my favorites, and so is EST, who are also from Sweden. Do you know them?
AT: Yes, the Esbjorn Svensson Trio. The founding member, the pianist after whom the group was named, just passed away in a tragic accident this past summer.
ASVO: Yes, and how sad that is. I like them very much as well. I find it's the same sort of music making as Brad's.
AT: So what is the emotional force behind this new song cycle that Carnegie Hall commissioned?
ASVO: The texts are these beautiful love poems by three poets: Sarah Teasdale, ee cummings, and Philip Larkin. I hadn't known the poems before, and they're absolutely beautiful. Brad first thought to use some other texts, but the ones he chose I just couldn't relate to. I found them to be too long, too oblique, and I just didn't understand what they were getting at. Give me a good love poem, and I'll be thrilled. So all of these poems are about different aspects of love, romantic love.
AT: As a singer, what are you looking for in new music?
ASVO: First I look simply at what the music tells me: what it means for my voice, and what it means for the piano. In these songs the piano part is fairly busy; Brad has such good technique, and they are really technically and rhythmically sophisticated.
AT: But that's part of what Mehldau is so well known for doing. Using complicated time signatures is something of a trademark for him.
ASVO: Absolutely. Bengt [Forsberg, von Otter's longtime accompanist] finds these songs to be very clever and beautiful.
AT: Speaking of Bengt Forsberg, this Carnegie program you're giving is divided between more traditional recital material that you'll be doing with Forsberg and the collaboration with Brad Mehldau.
ASVO: Yes. The first half will include music by Sibelius and Schumann, and then in the second half we'll switch over to Brad.
AT: I'm wondering if you've found venues to be open to that sort of genre-crossing within one concert.
ASVO: I have to say there are unfortunately some American presenters who have turned down this program exactly for that reason. They're afraid their audiences won't trust us enough to follow us out of the purely classical. It's a real shame, and I don't believe that kind of thinking gives enough credit to the audience. Perhaps things will change soon, yes?
Anne Sofie von Otter performs, with Brad Mehldau and Bengt Forsberg, at the Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage on Wednesday, Feb. 11 @ 8 PM. For tickets and information, visit Carnegie Hall.
Anastasia Tsioulcas is the North America section editor for Gramophone. She writes and speaks frequently about classical music, jazz, and world music for NationalGeographic.com, Billboard, National Public Radio, and Lincoln Center.