Anne Sofie von Otter and Brad Mehldau at the Koerner Hall in Toronto, February 25 2011
It all started inauspiciously. I arrived to the Koerner Hall lobby to discover that it was mobbed by the straight couples de certain age. There were only about ten people under 55 present, and they too were middle-class straight couples. I wandered about desperately, staring at people for signs of peculiarity, opera nerddom, or that special kind of anguish one has to contain before the performance by one’s diva assoluta. None of that. People were holding their wine glasses, talking about their day. What obliviousness, what gall, I thought. So in I went to find my most excellent, sixth row seat.
It opened with Grieg’s Med en vannlilje, with the piano score that captures the swirls of water currents. I’ve heard it on CD countless times before, but her live version was even more precise and intense. From the moment Otter walked to the stage she was there 100 percent in every note she sang and every movement she made — a gentle relentless volcano of energy and joy. At the intermission I’ve heard many people telling to their husbands that the tears started rolling from the very first Lied, but what I had to keep in check was the stream of hysterical giggle. How it began, so it continued. Every word in every Lied sung was full of meaning and alchemized for us into pure gold. There’s nothing I could add here that hasn’t been said in all the uniformly gushing reviews published during this North American tour. I want to tell you about something else.
The way she caresses the piano behind her while singing. Sometimes as if searching for temporary support in a moment of difficulty. Sometimes as if surrendering. Sometimes leisurely, as if to check if the elephant was still there, to pat it for good behaviour.
The dancing. She sang with her whole body, especially visible in the second part of the evening (you can’t really go wild during the Lieder, even if you’re dying to). The little hops and sudden stomps, the hip sways, the walkabouts, the elbow work, the walking on tiptoes, the playing with her necklace, and the finger-combing out of loose hairs from her ‘do.
The way she withdraws during the masterful piano solos. She’d settle in the curvature of the piano, close her eyes, and listen. The subtle changes of keys and mood you could also read in her face.
The usual gender transgressing business. There was the expected high percentage of the Lieder and pop songs sung to a woman this evening too. One song she sang both as Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire (Kern’s ‘I won’t dance’). There was the Maxence song, about going round the world yearning to find the woman of one’s dreams. The Sara Teasdale songs that Brad Mehldau composed the music for appear traditionalist on paper, but don’t be deceived. ‘Because’, for example, is a song in which a woman invites her lover to break both her ‘maidenhood’ and her spirit. Imagine a Scandinavian Amazon Feminist Divinity singing “break me and I’ll call you Master”, to grave and beautiful music, intelligent and despairing lyrics, but delivered with the discreet Otterian detachment and twinkle in the eye? Imagine the White Queen of Narnia coming down to you and saying, this is how you can conquer me if you dare? It’s scarier than Erika in The Piano Teacher (played by Isabelle Huppert in the film version) writing down her elaborate fantasies for her boy. This is much less manageable than what in the M/S circles they call the bossy masochist.
Oh and speaking of smut. The Lieder can be one helluva smutty business, and we’ve witnessed that again. They’re all about ‘heavenly satisfaction’ and ‘heaving busoms’ and some synesthesia of the senses or other. The pop section was actually less sexual than the first part, I realized. But all this to say: why didn’t anybody tell me how flirty Otter is on stage? I think she managed to make every single person in the KH think she’s singing only for her/him and is going through all this trouble just so she could seduce her/him. (This is what everybody looks in a singer, innit.)
Plus, she knows exactly how great she looks. It’s absolutely awe-inducing, the ease with which she carries herself.
There were several standing ovations, and the two encores, and then we finally lined up for the signing. When they came out I realized I should have handed the chrysanthemums in the colours of her dress (lilac and purple variations) during the curtain call, because of course she had changed in the meantime, to a red sweater, a pair of black pants and the sneakers. I told my queue mate that Damn it, that wasn’t part of the plan, and he told me she’s actually lovelier in this setup. Pfft. Not the point at all, mate. And there are no gradations of loveliness in von O, I’ll have you know. (I didn’t say that. I still had the giggles to worry about.)
She came out carrying a pint of ale, so I had to strike that off the list of things to say (Oh, by the way, can I get you a glass of something?) Before she took her chair, she made a kind of Nixonian, arms up in the air salute to the crowd. She had playfulness of a 6-year-old girl, and the hair clips to match.
So anyhoo, when the queue started moving really fast, I got concerned. How quickly is she dispatching people if my turn is about to come up this fast? When the queue mate’s turn came (they were yet another straight couple nearing sixties), the man took some time telling Otter a story in which the words “the Niagara escarpment” appeared. Was he offering his two cents to the question she invited us earlier on the stage to answer, what Joni Mitchell’s song ‘Michael from mountains’ is actually about? Or was it something else? She listened without interrupting and said at the end “That is a useful story.”
Finally I inched forward. I need to describe the Otter demeanour in this context. In contrast to the Otter on stage, she is rather guarded in this kind of situation, and of very few words. (No wonder: probably sat through a thousand signings where people come up to her with all kinds of requests and stories.) She doesn’t do the woman gendered interlocutor thing, with endless reinforcement, encouragement, smiles, the drawing out of the other… She has the air of the not easily impressed, but not the kind that annoys or causes rebellion. It’s the kind that makes you want to try even harder. She has that perfectionist “Is that all you got? I’m sure you can do better than that” signal. If you’re already mad about Otter, this will make you go even more batty.
Flowers delivered with “These are for you,” I begin what I thought was going to be a solid brief speech on how divine her musicianship is with “You have enriched my life tremendously… in so many ways…” and then I can’t remember any other word that exists in English. Not one.
Otter [no smile, no surprise, she did hear it countless times before]: Thank you.
Me: Um… can you sign these for me? [I produce the booklet from the L’incoronazione di Poppea DVD] This is one of my favourite ten Otter recordings.
[She says nothing, but she’s looking at the booklet with great interest. She’s flipping the pages.]
One of my favourite twenty Otter recordings, more accurately…
[this silly joke falls flat, but she is still absorbed by the booklet]
Otter: …no, yes, it’s true, it’s a wonderful recording… [leafing through]
You’ve never seen this booklet before? I smile. I am unnaturally, maniacally cheerful.
[so it turns out she never had this DVD book in her hands before, and something about it intrigued her]
Otter: Here? Or here?
Oh you can sign anywhere. That’s great… and um, if you can sign my tie?
Oh right, yes, I can… let me try… this way maybe… [she felt bad for writing on the cloth – was probably close to asking me if I’m sure, but then just went along with it. At this point I am noticing that the entire queue and the hangers-on were observing the scene]
Then silence again, she looks at me with those blue noncommittal bossy eyes and the stealth (because you can’t hang on to it, it’s never hang-on-able) Otter smile.
Er… Please come again soon. And stay longer.
Thank you. [Not “we will” or “I will” or “I’ll see what can be done”]
And since I know you cycle, this is for the next time, when you must stay longer: the cycling map of Toronto. Here it is.
[The ever so slight, imperceptible rise in the eyebrows.] Oh, thank you.
And do come again.
…and I’m off. The person behind me already edging their way in.
I walked home in -10C. The hysteric cheerfulness did not subside until about 2am, and it returned at 4am, while I was trying – in vain — to move from one sleep cycle to another.
The unsung hero of the night, though: Brad Mehldau. Astounding piano solos, and so much mensch-itude in his readiness to take the passenger’s seat when in Otter’s musical or personal company. He looked the way I felt: like he was in a total daze from when he entered the stage, during the concert, and after, while sitting by her side and smilingly observing the parade of the Otter-crazed humanity. The bottle of maple syrup which I didn’t dare give Otter – in my bag because I wanted to give her something more practical than the flowers, then left there because I decided the idea was so lame that it would cause her eyebrows to rise perceptibly – should have gone to him, with a sloppy kiss on the cheek. Mensch, über-musician, and my fellow Gen-Xer and North American, your presence meant a lot, although I was too out of it to be able to tell you that.
Given that none of the above was conducive to my calmly figuring out the camera settings required for this shooting environment, I hope you can forgive if these snapshots are not of the most limpid kind: