One has to go all the way back to 2004 to when a classical singer headlined the Adelaide Festival. In fact there were two in Stephen Page’s festival of that year: Bryn Terfel, who was in sublime voice, and Ivan Rebroff, who sang little and appeared to have imbibed too many vodkas when he did. This year, co-directors Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy are boosting the stocks of classical music further with Anne Sofie von Otter, the much admired and remarkably versatile mezzo-soprano from Sweden.
Perhaps best known for her work with John Eliot Gardiner from Monteverdi opera to Mahler lieder, her recital here ventures into an entirely different place: the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin on the outskirts of Prague to be precise. From 1941 to 1945 more than 150,000 Jews were interned there, including artists, actors and musicians from Czechoslovakia’s educated elite and wider Europe. Many were sent to the gas chambers in Auschwitz.
Thanks largely to the efforts of von Otter, a body of songs that was composed and performed at Terezin under the eyes of the Nazis has come to wide public attention. The story starts with her father, who was a diplomat working in Berlin during the war years, who tried unsuccessfully to alert authorities to the atrocities going on there.
Five decades on, and von Otter was asked to sing at a conference about the Holocaust in Stockholm. She explains: “When discussing the repertoire, the person I spoke with suggested that I look at the collection of music saved from Ghetto Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp where many Austrian, Czech and German Jews with cultural background were sent. Composers Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann, Gideon Klein and Hans Krasa, to name but a few, were sent there and subsequently murdered.”
These songs from Terezin radiate a great poignancy. Simply written and redolent of cabaret and folk music, they in effect form the soundtrack of the Nazis extermination of the Jews.
“Music and other art forms were allowed and even encouraged by the Nazis as Terezin was a ‘Musterghetto’, a camp that was shown to inspectors from the Red Cross for example,” says von Otter.
“Prior to a visit, the children were fed, flowers were planted and walls white washed. It was in other words an ‘Eden in the garden of Hell’. There are many descriptions of how much music meant to the prisoners – how, for a while, they were able to forget the terrible and terrifying circumstances under which they were forced to live.
“Art, culture, is something we should be very grateful for.”
Von Otter describes the songs of the interned composers as depicting a panoply of styles of the time: classical, cabaret, lullabies, work songs and operetta. Over the last decade, she has toured this seldom-heard repertoire to considerable acclaim, and suggests the reasons why it captures people’s imagination are “not only because it is such an important one, but because the music is so genuinely good. It is touching, sad, funny, tender, witty, heartbreaking.”
Anne Sofie von Otter (photo: Mats Bäcker)
The two concerts she gives at the Adelaide Festival are this one, at the Town Hall on Wednesday, March 7 with pianist Leif Kaner-Lidström and guitarist Fabian Fredriksson, and another in the series Compassion: Chamber Landscapes at Ukaria on Saturday, March 10. She says her repertoire will also include Nordic songs, German Lieder by Schubert, Bach arias and pop songs.
“We will be doing a mixed program, which these days seem to be something of a trademark of mine. There are so many kinds of beautiful lieder and songs from different countries and different times. Sounds like many directions but to us these pieces all have something that connects.”
Von Otter’s equal facility at singing pop immediately sets her apart from most other classical singers of the present era. She remembers singing Swedish folktunes as a child with her mother and, as a teen of the Flower Power generation, listening to The Beatles, Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. To venture into these popular styles, which she frequently does, requires great vocal dexterity.
“As it happens, my voice muscles have never forgotten what it feels like to sing with the more natural, non-classical muscles reflexes in action — something you need to sound credible if you sing jazz or pop or folk,” she says.
“Too much schooled sound as in power, high range or use of vibrato doesn’t suit the music so well, and people react against that. It is also important to use your sense of rhythm differently. In classical music you must normally be very precise. If you are very precise in jazz or pop — that is, on the beat — it sounds wrong.”
The songs from Terezin she sings promises to find a perfect counterpart in Rundfunkchor Berlin in Human Requiem. This unique interpretation of Brahms’s German Requiem, which dissolves the boundaries between performer and audience, is best sampled on YouTube clips — just to see what it will be like.
Creator and director, Jochen Sandig, explains that his aim in Human Requiem, which takes place at the Ridley Centre (Adelaide Showground) from Wednesday, March 14 to Sunday, March 18, is “to bring this important work as close as possible to each individual visitor” and give it a sense of intimacy and ritual.
“Johannes Brahms himself mentioned in a text that he could imagine that his Requiem would be called ‘Ein Menschliches Requiem’, which means human requiem,” he says.
“It’s called German because this is the language he has used instead of all the other Requiems that have existed before which are in Latin language. He has written it for us — the living mortals of today. This work belongs to all of us — the human beings of planet earth. Wherever we live, which language we speak, what we believe, how old, young, rich, poor, sad, happy we are. In front of death, in the end we are all equal; this makes us human as brothers and sisters.”
That sense of optimism perhaps found its utmost expression in the modern era in the music of Bernstein, so a concert celebrating his life and work also finds a fitting place in this festival. Bernstein On Stage! takes a chronological view of the composer through the eyes of John Mauceri, who conducted many of his works at his request and helped in the final revision of Candide.
Mauceri will conduct singers and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in excepts from Bernstein’s first ballet, Fancy Free, to West Side Story and his last Broadway show, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The US conductor says that while Bernstein found his sweet spot writing full-scale musicals, all of his popular and serious music “expresses the goodness in us”.
“It is about the idea of struggle to reach a happy ending that goes back to the beginning of Western European art. If Lenny was alive now, he would be writing similar music that speaks of tolerance and our better nature. It would be about the same idea of finding commonality between people all around the world, and conveying that tremendous capacity for goodness.”
One of Bernstein’s favourite sayings, Mauceri adds, was that we are all unequal and different as individuals, but we are all equal before the law — by this he meant the responsibility we all have as citizens of the world towards each other.”
It is surely a view worth celebrating in today’s world.
Friday, March 2 to Sunday, March 18
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