"terezin", an evening with anne sofie von otter

The award-winning mezzo  Anne Sofie von Otter teams up with Daniel Hope to tell the story in words and music of the Terezin concentration camp. Joined by colleagues Bengt Forsberg and Bebe Risenfors

Von Otter and Hope have performed extensively together in the United States, which included a performance of "Terezin" at Carnegie Hall, and many of Europe's leading summer festivals in 2009.

In October 2009 they will go back on tour to perform in 8 cities around Europe, including London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Madrid and Baden-Baden.

Deutsche Grammophon released a "Terezin" CD in 2007. Check the CD section of DanielHope.com for more information.

Read the interview with Anne Sofie von Otter about the Terezin Project, The Times, London, September 18th 2009

Photo © copyright Monika Lawrenz


Die Stadt „als ob“
Musiker verraten, warum ihnen ein Werk am Herzen liegt. Diesmal: Daniel Hope, Geiger

Daniel Hope writes about why the music of Terezin is so special to him, for Berlin's "Der Tagesspiegel" Newspaper, 24th September 2009

Vor zehn Jahren, während einer Autofahrt, hörte ich zufällig ein Streichtrio im Radio. Diese Musik hat mich schlichtweg umgehauen -- ich musste sogar ranfahren, um sicherzugehen, dass ich den Namen des Komponisten erfahre. Gideon Klein. Ich kannte ihn nicht. Per Internet erfuhr ich, dass Klein jener Gruppe von Komponisten angehörte, die in Theresienstadt interniert wurden und die dort Musik schrieben und Konzerte organisierten. Mit der sogenannten „Freizeitgestaltung“ wollten die Nazis zeigen, wie ‚gut’ es den Juden in Theresienstadt ging. Die Stadt war eine Künstlerkolonie – aber nur, wie der inhaftierte Kabarettist Leo Strauss es nannte, „als ob“. Vor ein paar Jahren rief mich die Mezzosopranistin Anne Sofie von Otter an, die sich ebenfalls seit langem für diese Musik interessiert. Wir nahmen zusammen eine CD auf, und in diesem Jahr touren wir durch die ganze Welt, um von ‚Terezin’ zu erzählen. Dieser Abend erzählt von der Macht der Musik. Sie zeigt uns, wie die menschliche Seele auf unerträgliche äußere Umstände reagiert. Kann man das Umfeld, in dem diese Musik entstanden ist, außer Acht lassen? Nein. Aber im Auto damals war es nur die Musik, die zu mir sprach. Die Töne sind kraftvoll, unsentimental und kompromisslos. Jede Note scheint zu zählen – diese Menschen komponierten im wahrsten Sinne um ihr Leben...

„Ich wandre durch Theresienstadt“: 7.Oktober, 20 Uhr, Kammermusiksaal, Philharmonie Berlin

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guardian.co.uk / October 2009

Music's emotional power is often dependent on its context. A programme of music composed primarily by inmates of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt was always going to be moving, but the profundity of the encounter still took me by surprise.

Theresienstadt was a holding camp where prisoners stayed before being carted off to the death camps. But there were many longer-term inmates drawn from the Czech and German Jewish elite, who developed a kind of last-resort entertainment culture to keep themselves alive and to afford a glimpse of hope to the shorter-term residents who knew they had none. Eventually, the Nazis co-opted the unlikely renaissance for propaganda purposes by staging operettas and concerts to fool visitors from the Red Cross.

Stylistically, this programme was extremely varied, ranging from Debussyan song settings by Viktor Ullmann and the art-folk songs of Pavel Haas to the cabaret-esque ballads of Adolf Strauss and the skin-deep jollity of the camp's unofficial anthem – "In Terezin we take life as it comes" – adapted from the operetta Countess Maritza by Kalman. The commitment of the performers was unmistakable, Daniel Hope's throaty violin tones in particular echoing perfectly the ambiguous lyricism so often at play.

Like her legendary compatriot Jussi Björling, Von Otter's facility with folk genres is amplified by an ability to inhabit them completely in performance, and it was in many ways the least artful of the song settings that proved the most affecting. The lullaby by the children's author Ilse Weber, who looked after the camp children and voluntarily accompanied them to Auschwitz in 1944, has the simplest rocking melody imaginable. There may have been a dry eye in the house after Von Otter's serenely compassionate rendition, but I couldn't tell. Even my neighbours' faces had reduced to a dim blur.

The Times / October 2009

Most performers bounce concerts off a CD at the time of the CD’s release. Then they move on. But two years after their wide-ranging collection Terezin/Theresienstadt hit the shops, the mezzo Anne Sofie von Otter and friends are still delving into the music of the Holocaust musicians who continued to make music in the Nazi camps until the end came. Half the current touring programme contains new material. But there would be value enough in Otter revisiting those songs of Ilse Weber: artless, affecting cries of nostalgia, crowned by a lullaby for the children Weber nursed all the way to the gas chamber.

The new material featured much of interest. There was the only surviving composition by the young Robert Dauber: a light serenade of yearning charm, dispatched with sultry splendour by the violinist Daniel Hope and the pianist Bengt Forsberg. Another peak was Forsberg’s selection from the Reminiscences suite by the future bass singer Karel Berman, the only one of the concert’s composers to survive the camps. Auschwitz — Corpse Factory sounded at first like refrigerated Debussy, but the harmonies soon turned to grinding. In Typhus in Kauffering Concentration Camp semi-quavers whirled, as if they themselves were carriers of infection. Good to hear from Pavel Haas too, one of the most naturally gifted of the Terezin camp composers.

Not every item nourished. Hope’s gusto helped Erwin Schulhoff’s solo violin sonata to make a strong impression; otherwise, we heard the composer’s more tortuous side. Otter magnified the unstable tonality of the Stimmungsbilder songs by queering her pitches, slithering in an excess of emotion: sometimes her voice doesn’t quite do what she wants it to. Nor could she make a great musical case for Immer inmitten by Viktor Ullmann, a strident talent better displayed in the Jewish inflections of his birch tree song, Beryozkele. One of Otter’s shrieks in that number almost burnt the ears.

This was a sobering concert, stamped by pain and loss, which the sprinkling of cabaret songs and the merry bubble of Bebe Risenfors’s accordion could do little to relieve. But how could it be otherwise?

theartsdesk.com / October 2009

Theresienstadt was the Nazis’ most successful PR exercise. Described as a “Jewish settlement” for the preservation and propagation of the Arts, this Czech outpost turned concentration camp housed virtually the whole of the Jewish cultural elite. Inmates called it an anthill, a “Garden of Eden in the middle of Hell”. But the Nazis insisted that cultural freedom was encouraged, even cultivated, here. This was no concentration camp, rather a transit camp. Even the International Red Cross was taken in. Actually it was death’s waiting room. And while they waited, they wrote, they played, they sang.

Anne Sofie von Otter and friends have been touring their chatty, informal concert of the album remembering and honouring the inhabitants of Theresienstadt. And as they have journeyed, the layers of bitter-sweet irony have doubtless intensified. Here in the Queen Elizabeth Hall the weathered faces of those for whom the memories were perhaps a little more immediate gave nothing away as folksy fiddle (Daniel Hope) and piano accordion (Bebe Risenfors) struck up their mordant strains. One jolly song was called Anything Goes! but Cole Porter it was not and I doubt anyway that even he could have laughed in the face of death quite so defiantly. And we laughed, too, at the Charleston-inflected showstopper from Emmerich Kalman’s hit operetta Countess Maritza given the Terezin spin (as in pithy new lyrics) and delivered with thigh-slapping aplomb by von Otter.

What a contradiction she is, this classy and perceptive artist who in her floral jacket and sensible pants you might easily pass by shopping in Marks and Spencer. Tall and long-necked and un-airbrushed she looks so ordinary and sounds so extraordinary. You watch her deliver a song like Always in the midst of it where the bitter repetitions of the title acquire a venom and abandon vocally that barely registers physically. Where, you wonder, does the hall-filling cry of pain in the pay-off line of Bright Venus (both by Viktor Ullmann) come from?

One amazing aspect of the Theresienstadt saga is that music banned by the National Socialists was cynically given free reign in the camp. Erwin Schulhoff, here enjoying the passionate advocacy of Daniel Hope, was always going to threaten the emotional pygmies with its Bartokian defiance and decadent hothouse lyricism. Hope gave movements from two of his sonatas and his smouldering G-string ascents were gloriously and dangerously uninhibited.

The real tears were shed last. Von Otter and her longtime accompanist Bengt Forsberg performed a lullaby Wiegala by Ilse Weber. She nursed the children at Theresienstadt and when the time came for them to board the train for Auschwitz she insisted she went with them. She never returned. In the last line of the song – “How silent is the world!” - von Otter tapered the sound to barely a whisper. The lost children would no more stir, no more be heard.

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