A thoughtful orchestral concert in Berlin: Björk summons the gods of Iceland – culture in the forest

Singing bowls, also known as handpans, are extremely popular instruments. Whoever hears them takes them almost immediately from the present, provides a deep relaxation, and expectation is hardly perceived as such. In this regard, it was a good choice to involve the Austrian Manu Delago as the opening performance in Waldbühne, who had toured with Björk several times before and immediately agrees that it will be a fairly elegiac evening.

Then there are the strings from the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin (RSB) with conductor Bjarni Fríman Bjarnason – and finally Björk herself, without a bang, without a bang, just going down the ramp, a creature like out of this planet.

Tens of thousands cheer with relief: they have waited a long time for this moment. The “Björk Orchestral Tour” has been postponed twice because of the Corona.
Björk wouldn’t be Björk if she allowed herself to be caught up in the pandemic – a genre-defying artist that means more than “just” singing, has been stuck in the spotlight for nearly three decades, her debut album from 1993. – probably and programmatically called “Debiut”.

The last one, “Utopia”, was released five years ago, so each performance is all the more welcome. An Icelandic man most recently visited Berlin in 2015, at the Spandau Citadel. Contrary to the sumptuous ‘Cornucopia’ tour of 2019 (which was based on ‘Utopia’), these first post-pandemic shows are visually truncated, almost a bit modest, no greasy lighting effects, no props. It’s about the basics: voice, texts, composition.

Björk sings 15 songs that evening, starting with “Stonemilker” (2015) very calmly and calmly. If you did not know, you would have a hard time listening to this music that a catastrophic separation is being creatively processed here, as in all the titles of the album “Vulnicura”, which was very present that evening.

Artist / director Matthew Barney: “What do I have / what makes me feel your pain / like milking a stone”. Emotionally, she becomes completely naked, which, as always, stands in striking contrast to the rich costume that with Björk always seems to tell its own story.

From a distance, this clothing composition has something wild about it, like a Nordic fur bedspread, but if you look closely, it looks more like a Japanese kimono, richly decorated yet with a certain lightness. In addition, a silver hat and a mask that gives it a feline character.

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It’s perfectly logical that Björk performs with a large symphony orchestra, as strings have always played a major role in their dazzling musical cosmos. But now the arrangements give the songs something extra soft, rounded, luxuriantly blooming, soothing the hard and painful nooks and crannies that the lyrics talk about.

Sometimes the singer steps back completely, allowing the tutti or solos to flourish. Björk collaborates with RSB for the first time, coordinating with a young fellow countryman Bjarnason on the podium, who studied in Berlin at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music, works audibly well. Originally, the chief conductor of the RSB, Vladimir Yurovsky, was supposed to be here, but this plan was lost at some point during the two years of the pandemic.

Her voice is unique, reminiscent of a mermaid

Surely not lost, even at the age of 56, Björk’s unique, still youthful-sounding voice, which has the mythological depth of sirens, is often sung as if in a trance, and over time has become at best succinctly.

With this soprano, he now interprets “Aurora” or “Come to Me”, “Hunter”, “Quicksand” or “I’ve see it all” from the “Dancer in the Dark” soundtrack to the accompaniment of choppy basses and cellos.

Scenes from the artist’s life: The relationship with the director Lars von Trier was also difficult and reportedly characterized by exploitation. Björk explores himself in his work many times, including with the fictional character “Isobel” in an early 1995 song of the same name. It begins like a fairy tale, the words come from the Icelandic poet Sjón: “In a heart full of dust / he lives with a being called lust / it surprises and terrifies / like me”.

A thoughtful concert

All in all, Waldbühne does not sound overwhelming, but a hearty, less well-thought-out concert that, which is a pity, is missing at least one big hit: “Venus as a boy”. The RSB encore plays “Ouverture” from the “Dancer in the Dark” soundtrack, followed by Björk giving a short speech alluding to the pandemic and the fact that concert dates were constantly shifted as a result. And he raises his verbal fist: “But we didn’t give up!”

Everything changes again in the last issue: the RSB strings can show that they can handle hard, dramatic techno beats as well. In the case of “Pluto” from the album “Homogenic”, Björk was inspired by the ninth planet, also known as the “great innovator”, although it has already lost its planetary status.

Icelandic mythology, Ragnarök, is also significant, a monumental narrative cycle full of natural catastrophes and falling gods, comparable in size to the Nibelungen. “Platoon” is so completely different from the previous, slightly melancholic setting of the concert that it seems to be an announcement: we will play again next time.

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