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Interview: Ute Lemper’s brain baby visits 54 Below—limited engagement

World citizen Ute Lemper brings her artistry to 54 Below
World citizen Ute Lemper brings her artistry to 54 Below
Photo: Lucas Allen

Ute Lemper—who spoke Saturday, Aug. 30, with—has been traveling virtually every continent during the past year presenting her newest CD collaboration. Titled “Ute Lemper Forever: the Love Poems of Pablo Neruda,” the ten-song compilation lasts more than an hour and seems like world armchair travel. It comprises the first half of a program she presents this week at 7 p.m., Sept. 2-6, at New York’s supper club 54 Below. The rest of the program includes selections of cabaret standards from Kurt Weill, Berthold Brecht, Edith Piaf and others.

With the opening strains of “La nuit dans l’ile” (Night on the Island) we wonder: Where are we? On Paris’ Left Bank? Is that a concertina we hear? No, it’s a bandoneón, a hexagonal variety of the accordion. So we’re somewhere in South America, as the charango—a small, ten-string guitar—also attests. Argentina? Nope. We are in the land of the late Nobel prize poet Pablo Neruda, born in Chile. The island in question, then, is Isla Negra (Black Island), where Neruda was exiled in Chile, not an actual island but an outcropping of the coastal area.

The ensemble’s tango setup prompts thoughts of Argentina. Neruda’s third wife, Matilde Urrutia, was Argentine, so this fact influenced much of his poetry. That influence is reflected in the song cycle. Even the weather forms part of the musical atmosphere. In “El viento en la isla” (The Wind on the Island), the band ‘gallops’ in alternating strophes, apropos to the poetic lines “El viento es un caballo” (The wind is a horse) and “Escucha como el viento / me llama galopando / para llevarme lejos” (Listen to how the wind / calls to me galloping / to take me far away).

The chanteuse intended to create a song cycle in honor of the chanson, a lyric-driven French song. Think Edith Piaf or Jacques Brel. The cycle is based on European tradition with Chilean influence. Even the French selections of the CD have a definite South American flare. “I wanted to create a cycle of songs and found myself gravitating toward Neruda’s love poems, which carry the exile mentality and express his restlessness,” says Ute Lemper.

Pablo Neruda wore many hats: politician, diplomat, Chile’s ambassador to France, poet, husband, lover. Ute Lemper’s life mirrors such feverish multitasking. She is not just a singer, but a classic cabaret performer, a songwriter, music arranger, producer, wife, mother, you name it. Her children are ages 20, 18, 8, and 3. “It’s a treat to escape to my music room,” she says. How does she keep the proper balance between family and career? “I have no time for socializing or hanging around.”

The sheer variety of musical style on the CD is staggering. A jazz piano bar, heavy with smoke, welcomes us in “If You Forget Me,” but the musical atmosphere alternates with pensively introspective Erik Satie-like chamber music, particularly evocative of his “Gnossiennes.” In “Tus manos” (Your Hands), a doleful viola (Dov Scheindlin) duets with sympathetic violin (Jesse Mills).

Quirky Spanish, perhaps influenced by a knowledge of Portuguese or maybe Italian, characterizes “Alianza/Sonata (Alliance).” About Spanish Ute Lemper enthuses, “It’s a very earthy, passionate language. To sing in it is an utmost pleasure. The Chileans have a beautiful accent. The charango player, Freddy Torrealba, coached my accent.”

The songs in the cycle come in Spanish, French and English. For a career steeped in the German tradition, obviously missing are German selections. “I didn’t like any of the German adaptations of Neruda’s poems,” she says. “The Germans are very upset with me, but his poems sounded so stiff in that language.”

In “Siempre (Always),” the sparest selection instrumentally, Freddy Torrealba declaims the poem in spoken voice. Vana Gierig provides excellent piano partnership. Ute Lemper is the only other “instrument,” and she improvises vocal lines sounding very much like a muted trumpet.

Where “Siempre” is quiet and slow, “Always” is the polar opposite, rhythmically vibrant and upbeat with a full host of musicians accompanying—almost partying. It’s unfathomable that it’s the same Neruda poem, just in Donald D. Walsh’s English adaptation.

Ute Lemper points to other similarities she shares with Pablo Neruda. “He was a world citizen. So am I. I have lived 18 years in New York. I lived for years in Paris. I definitely carry the French culture in my heart. Of course, the German is my root repertoire. My complicated cultural heritage, being everywhere, all these musical influences that I have carried with me these 30 years of performing—it’s all in there.”

“The Saddest Poem/No. 20” is just one number that has the artist singing scat like the late Elaine Stritch, with a rasp. Ute Lemper is a soprano who knows how to protect the voice while producing intriguing vocal effects. “I can access an intimacy in the voice that the microphone picks up, these aspects to the voice that would go unheard in a setting without amplification. I like to access the broken human area of the voice that is certainly in the lower register.”

The song cycle Ute Lemper calls “my brain baby, which I conceived. It took life on its own but was formed when collaborating with the other artists.”

What’s next for the busy artist? She is already working on another song cycle. This time the texts come from Brazilian lyricist and novelist Pablo Coehlo. “I am happiest when creating these projects or, like now, when performing the Neruda poems.” Judging from the CD, Ute Lemper must be very happy indeed.

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