As a special addition to the L.A. Philharmonic’s Reykjavík Festival, the Walt Disney Concert Hall hosted the gloriously singular, Icelandic chanteuse Björk. Having spent the past two years touring around the world in support of her most recent album, 2015’s “Vulnicura”, Los Angeles had the distinct privilege of hosting one of Björk’s final “Vulnicura” performances.
Written and recorded following her break-up with Matthew Barney, “Vulnicura” had been heralded by many publications as being one of the best albums of 2015, with critics describing it as “the most heart-rending music she’s ever made” (Rolling Stone) filled with “harrowingly expressive compositions” (The Guardian) that are “brave, beautiful and affecting” (NME). On this very special evening in the City of Angeles, fans would be able to experience all of the foregoing.
The first act consisted of the first six songs from “Vulnicura”- performed in order- and was an emotional punch to the gut. Dressed all in black, it was as if Björk was attending her failed relationship’s wake, delivering a eulogy that presented an unflinching emotional outpouring for the room to see. Known for wearing gorgeously designed headdresses, the headdress she wore for the first half of the performance revealed most of her face, which gave the audience an opportunity to see Björk physically wrestle with the emotional gravitas that lay within each lyric.
The orchestration of each piece had been pared down to a lush string arrangement. Gone from this performance were the hyperactive synths and pulsing drums that Björk has perfected over her career. Rather, the music, like the lyrics, had been stripped down to it’s rawest form, adding yet another level of vulnerability to the already weighty subject matter. Each song was a magical moment, but the crescendo of emotions and intensity during the last three songs of the first act was certainly noticed by me.
During the performance of the gloriously dark, 10 minute “Black Lake”, I scanned the room with my binoculars and saw as many fans leaning forward from their seats with their mouths agape as I did wiping away tears. During Björk’s performance of “Family” (which was my second favorite moment of the evening, as I thought the stage production was brilliant), as she sang the lyrics “It will relieve us from the pain/ It will make us a part of/ This universe of solutions/ This place of solutions/ This location of solutions”, the house lights slowly pulsed into the crowd until the entire audience was faintly lit. It affirmed my notion that in that moment, and in this place, we were Björk’s “family”. Then, the tempo picked up with “NotGet”, as if breathing new life into the room- a moment of rebirth- which was visually signified in the subtle crafting of the headdress as the leaves that flowed at the side of her face began to glow in the dark with life.
The second act of the performance was- with the addition of two upright basses and Björk dressed in a free flowing, colorful ensemble- decidedly more light hearted and free. From a sonic perspective, perhaps adding more bass to her ensemble for the second half of the performance was Björk’s way of reassuring the audience and signifying that she was well on her way to returning to her pre-relationship state of being. Björk’s head was adorned with a sparkly, oversized butterfly design, and while it hid most of her face, exposing only her eyes and mouth, it was symbolic of the metamorphosis that she was undertaking on stage.
Some highlights from the second half included the performance of crowd favorites “Joga” (my personal favorite moment of the night) and “I’ve Seen It All”, each of which elicited some of the loudest cheers I’ve ever heard in the storied venue. Her performance of “Bachelorrette” had her playfully dancing around the stage during, snapping her fingers to the beat (which snaps, now that I think about it, were the only percussion in the whole evening). Björk then concluded the main part of her set going back to “Vulnicura” with performances of “Quicksand” and “Mouth Mantra”, completing the “Vulnicura” theme.
Encores were undeniable, and Björk performed “The Anchor Song” (a song about “home” that she sang through in both English and in her native tongue) and “Pluto”. During the encore, Björk addressed the crowd personally, thanking the Los Angeles based string ensemble and proudly introducing her fellow countryman, the conductor, Bjarni Frimann Bjarnason. Before walking off the stage for the last time, Björk added:
“This is emotional for me – it’s my last winter concert. I’m really happy I spent it with you guys.”
On behalf of all those in attendance, please rest assured that the feelings … the deeply personal feelings … were mutual.
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