Can this be a jazz pianist? Composer in residence at Carnegie Hall for 2010-’11. Collaborator at piano with international opera stars. Author of insightful articles applying classical music theory to classical music. Philosopher.
All right. It was a trick question. The answer is “Yes, it’s Brad Mehldau.” The versatile jazz pianist appears with Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter in recital at McCarter Theater on Thursday, February 17. Von Otter, who sings everything from Mozart to the Beatles is Mehldau’s match at dissolving musical boundaries. “I have never considered any type of music as being taboo,” she says. “I like changing style and mood.”
In the first half of the concert Mehldau nestles solo piano pieces by Johannes Brahms among vocal compositions by Brahms, Richard Strauss, Edvard Grieg, Jean Sibelius, and Swedish composers. In the second half Mehldau’s settings of five poems by American poet Sara Teasdale precede songs to be announced, jazz fashion, from the stage. After the McCarter appearance Mehldau and von Otter bring the program to Carnegie Hall and to selected American and international venues.
Mehldau and von Otter appeared at Carnegie Hall in a similar format in February, 2009. That incarnation premiered the Teasdale songs, which Mehldau wrote for von Otter as part of a Carnegie Hall commission. The pianist in the first half of the concert was Bengt Forsberg, von Otter’s longtime collaborator. Like Mehldau in Princeton, he joined von Otter in classical works, and, in addition, played solo piano compositions.
The two-disc CD “Love Songs,” released by Mehldau and von Otter in November, 2010, includes an extended version of the Teasdale songs. Two earlier Mehldau works, “The Blue Estuaries” and “The Book of Hours: Love Poems to God,” commissioned by Carnegie Hall for voice and piano, appear on the 2006 recording “Love Sublime.” Mehldau wrote them for soprano Renee Fleming, and the two premiered the works in a 2005 Carnegie Hall concert.
Interviewed by E-mail, Mehldau describes the insights he gathered from working with the two classical singers. He calls both Fleming and von Otter “incredible, accomplished artists,” and adds, “I’ve learned a lot about how they work. What amazes me about both of them is how they can negotiate between so much different music all the time, keep it all in their brains, and stay cool. You’re doing your thing with them, and then later that week they are off to perform in an opera, and then the following week it’s something completely different. Actually just seeing them pull that off is a great inspiration to me and makes me realize it’s possible to balance several things at once.”
Mehldau’s forthrightness comes through as he answers questions electronically. His awareness of the surprise that his answers are likely to evoke comes through in his use of exclamation points.
U.S 1: What do you look for in a classical vocalist collaborator?
Mehldau: Someone who wants to work with me! In both cases, they approached me, and I readily agreed.
U.S. 1: Who selected the texts?
Mehldau: In Renee’s case, I chose the [Rainer Maria] Rilke, and she introduced me to Louis Bogan’s poems, which I then used. With Anne Sofie, I made some initial suggestions, and she rightly suggested that the texts might be too busy to set. For instance, I had some Wallace Stevens poems I was thinking about. Finally I found the Sara Teasdale, and they seemed just right.
U.S. 1: What about musical input?
Mehldau: I wrote the music but welcomed their suggestions for interpretation. There were places, for instance, where both of them said, “Let me hold out that note longer,” or something like that. As a composer for voice, you’re trying to allow for a broad expressive palette, but you also don’t want to exhaust the voice. Some of the songs I set for Renee sat in a difficult part of her range for long stretches, but she was very good natured about it!
U.S. 1: Was vocal range a factor, with Fleming a soprano and von Otter a mezzo-soprano?
Mehldau: I definitely factored in each singer’s range as I wrote. That is a real challenge, and I feel like with each song I wrote I got more intuitive about making the right choices. It’s something that must come from experience, by doing it.
U.S. 1: How did working with Fleming and von Otter differ?
Mehldau: With Anne Sofie we are doing some material in a looser, more improvised setting. It’s a fun show and a nice challenge for both of us because we are both alternatively in and out of our comfort zones. After intermission we draw from a large pool of material and change the program slightly at every performance.
U.S. 1: Who’s next? Non-vocal classical musicians?
Mehldau: I would really like to try my hand at writing for the male voice one of these days.
Mehldau was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1970. His first exposure to piano was with his mother, who taught him folk tunes. He grew up in Hartford, Connecticut. Before finishing high school, he studied at the Longy School for Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For three summers, from ages 10 through 12, he attended Merrywood Music Camp, in the Berkshires, close to Tanglewood. “We played chamber music there,” he remembers, “which was a great experience.”
A fellow camper at Merrywood, first name Louis, exposed Mehldau to the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane. He describes the experience in his May, 2010, article “Coltrane, Jimi Hendrix, Beethoven, and God,” posted on his website:
“My first time hearing Coltrane’s music was an initiation, and it was ceremonial. The cabins were hot during the day, and usually we would just stay outside during those hours when the sun peaked. But Louis and I went into the cabin, and we shut the door and kept the windows shut, and we listened to Coltrane. I was sweating and freaking out; it was awesome. I had never heard any music remotely like that. When we emerged, I was changed.” Mehldau chalks it up to “the confrontation with the sublime that philosophers like [Immanuel] Kant and [Arthur] Schopenhauer had mapped out.”
In 1988 Mehldau began his studies at the New School for Social Research Jazz Program in New York City. Among his mentors was Fred Hersch. In 1994 he formed his own trio and established himself as a prolific and imaginative pathfinder in jazz. He is married to Dutch jazz vocalist Fleurine, with whom he records and tours.
A fluent Dutch speaker, Mehldau finds the language useful for helping him understand German. “I would really love to be fluent in German,” he says. “My wife is fluent in German, and it infuriates me. Sometimes she will speak with me in German and humor me, but most of the time she says, ‘Learn it yourself. I already taught you one language.’”
Mehldau’s performances with his wife feature more improvisation than his collaborations with classical singers Fleming and von Otter. “With my wife, Fleurine, I do something more interactive,” he says. “I really stretch out, like I would playing in a trio or solo setting, abstracting the meter, altering the harmony, et cetera. I do that with her more than I would with another jazz vocalist, in fact. She encourages it, and that’s what makes it fun for her as well. We have this thing together.”
Considering musical creativity a heroic act, Mehldau thinks of improvisation as the pinnacle of heroism. In a recent essay he writes “When we witness an inspired improvisation, we are witnessing the creative act in real time, in a raw unbridled form. Jazz music at its best has an exalted status among all forms of musical expression because of the way it simultaneously adds to the Western musical canon and transcends it.”
Mehldau is the first jazz musician to hold the Richard and Barbara Debs Composer’s Chair at Carnegie Hall. One of his assignments as composer-in-residence is to write eight articles about music for the Carnegie Hall website. “It was a great opportunity to organize a lot of loose ends writing-wise that I’ve had lying around for a few years,” he says, “and it is a nice home for them. The Carnegie readership is pretty hip, and I have gotten some nice feedback.” So far, he has posted four articles.
Mehldau calls the series “Creativity in Beethoven and Coltrane.” The first piece is a very personal, detailed classical analysis of Beethoven’s String Quartet, Opus 95. For all the articles, Mehldau reveals, “I’m going to take the same approach: part procedural analysis/theory, part trying to expand and relate what I write to bigger ideas.” He means ideas like spirituality, mortality, and religion, which have surfaced in his earlier writings.
“I use John Coltrane as the jazz parallel to Beethoven,” Mehldau says, “in the sense that he continued to evolve. Both of them are searchers. It’s not the only way to be a musician, but it’s a very compelling way. You have other musicians and composers who find their template and then simply refine it throughout their lives, which can be beautiful. But the drama that I imagine with Coltrane or Beethoven is that they are evading their mortality by continuously disavowing their own achievements. They don’t want to stop. That is something that I think many people can relate to in any discipline, indeed, just in the day to day business of living.”
Mehldau’s essays first turned up as liner notes during his early days as a band leader. They have been collected on his website www.bradmehldau.com. Click on “Writings.”
Anne Sofie Von Otter and Brad Mehldau, Matthews Theater at the McCarter, 91 University Place, Princeton. Thursday, February 17, 8 p.m. Mezzo soprano and jazz piano. $41 and $45. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.