By Kyle MacMillan
A successful recital by any singer or instrumental soloist would be impossible without the artistry and support of a strong keyboard partner. Yet those indispensable collaborators typically have little name recognition and often get only token mention in the ads for such concerts and even in reviews.
But a series of five upcoming recitals featuring Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and Canadian pianist Angela Hewitt is different. Their mini-North American tour Jan. 9-23 is very much a meeting of equals. Both participants are internationally recognized artists, each with an extensive discography and a long list of honors.
Although Hewitt ventures into varied musical realms, she is best known for her eloquent explorations of Baroque keyboard masterworks, especially those of Bach. Her latest chart-topping album, “Bach: The Art of Fugue,” was released in October on the Hyperion label. Von Otter has gained wide respect for her expressive operatic portrayals and sensitive, probing interpretations of an unusually vast range of vocal repertoire, including forays into the pop and jazz realms. She has been featured on more than 100 recordings, including an exclusive relationship with Deutsche Grammophon for more than 20 years.
The artists met in 2012 when Hewitt invited von Otter to take part in the Trasimeno Music Festival, which the pianist founded more than a decade ago in the Umbria region of Italy.
“There’s nothing I love better than playing for a great singer,” Hewitt said by phone from her home in London. They both enjoyed the experience and decided to perform concerts together in the U.S. and Canada, an idea that is finally coming to fruition this month. “I’m flattered she wants to do this with me,” von Otter said, “and I’m sure we’ll enjoy it. We’re doing quite a lot of French (songs), and she loves that.”
Von Otter is an infrequent visitor to North America, usually crossing the Atlantic Ocean once or twice a year and rarely venturing far from the two coasts. “I find the travel quite daunting,” she said, speaking from Bern, Switzerland. “There is no way you can commute back to Stockholm if you have three days free.” Still, she spent six weeks in the fall rehearsing and performing in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Richard Strauss’ Capriccio and “loved every single day of it.” And she is hoping to boost her time here at least somewhat, especially in places where she has never performed.
Hewitt has performed with singers off and on during her career in art-song or lieder recitals. In the next several months, she is scheduled to appear with baritones Russell Braun and Gerald Finley and soprano Felicity Lott. “When you’re playing for a singer, you have to be subservient to everything they’re going to do,” the pianist said. She recalled a concert with Finley when, two minutes into it, she realized his approach was nothing like it had been in rehearsal. “You really have to be on your toes, prepared and alert,” she said. “You have to listen to every word. You have to listen to every breath. You have to breathe with the singer.”
Von Otter is willing to alter a tempo here or there or make a few other concessions to her pianist, but she freely admits that for the most part she wants her say in how things are done in performance. “I have a very strong mind of my own,” she said. “In fact, I’m quite stubborn, and I want it my own way, so I wouldn’t want to work with a pianist who wasn’t willing to listen to what I’m thinking, what I had to say, because, after all, I’m the one singing the words, and the words are the whole point of the lieder.”
The mezzo-soprano said choosing a recital program is time-consuming: “I have a lot to choose from and the programs have to appeal to that particular audience where I’m going. And who’s the pianist? What language is it? I often change my mind. But once it’s there, it’s fun to go out and do it.”
Von Otter believes the key to a successful recital is variety, so she likes to mix composers and languages. “Chamber music requires a lot from the listener: concentration and sitting still, and there is nothing to entertain you like there is in opera. So, it’s all about the music and the actual performance — what the artists are conveying.”
The program for the artists’ mini-tour opens with lieder by Beethoven, Schubert, and Brahms. The second half is devoted to French songs: Along with Debussy, Fauré, and Reynaldo Hahn, the duo will spotlight Cécile Chaminade (1874-1947), who gained considerable success during her career but never the renown of some of her male peers.
Interspersed with the art songs on each half will be complementary selections for solo piano, such as Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat, D. 899, and Emmanuel Chabrier’s “Bourrée fantasque” — inclusions that were von Otter’s idea. “I don’t sing two solid halves,” she said. “I just find that tiring and sort of boring for the audience. Variety is the key to keeping the audience interested.”
Mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Angela Hewitt will perform in the following locations:
8 p.m. Jan. 9 (sold out)
Koerner Hall, Telus Centre, 273 Bloor St. West
(416) 408-0208; tickets.rcmusic.ca
3 p.m. Jan. 11
University of Chicago, Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th St.
(773) 702-2787; ticketsweb.uchicago.edu
7 p.m. Jan. 18 (sold out)
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1111 O’Farrell St.
(415) 392-2545; sfperformances.org
7:30 p.m. Jan. 21
Le Poisson Rouge, 153 Bleecker St.
(212) 505-3474; lepoissonrouge.com
8 p.m. Jan. 23
Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St.
(617) 482-6661; celebrityseries.org
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.