Björk's Mournful Melodies Thrill in Orchestral Arrangements at Disney Hall

Björk performs with a string orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 30.
Björk performs with a string orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday, May 30.
Santiago Felipe

Björk
Walt Disney Concert Hall
May 30, 2017

“Love will keep us safe from death,” Björk sang Tuesday night at the end of her first set at Disney Hall, flashing a quick gesture of devil’s horns to let the adoring capacity crowd know she was really OK. She repeated variations of the lyric from “Notget” as if it were a mantra, which sounded like a prayerlike beacon of hope following the mini-set of six songs of emotional upheaval, loss and longing from the Icelandic singer’s 2015 album, Vulnicura.

The work charts Björk’s attempts to deal with the fallout from a breakup with her former longtime romantic partner, American fine artist Matthew Barney, and it took on increased resonance live as she performed it for the final time on this tour with the accompaniment of a 32-piece orchestra conducted by her countryman Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason. Although string arrangements are a major component of the record, which Björk co-produced with Venezuelan DJ Arca and an assist from British producer The Haxan Cloak, the recent songs felt even more intimate in concert when shorn of the album’s electronic elements, with the acoustic instrumentation and Björk’s yearning voice twining together and resonating grandly from inside the belly of the wooden whale known as Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Striding in from the wings at stage right, Björk couldn’t help making a dramatic entrance before the first song of the evening, “Stonemilker.” She was gussied up like the Evil Queen from Snow White in a stunning floor-length ensemble, with a shiny, black vinyl top giving way to a diaphanous, gray-black skirt streaked with rainbow-colored sequins. Underneath the folds of the gauzy skirt, she wore black thigh-high platform boots. Her shoulder pads were shaped like large black raven wings, and the singer’s head was crowned with a fantastic white and yellow helmet that sprouted long protuberances that bent and curled in the shape of a ram’s horns.

As Bjarnason guided the orchestra — all dressed in black — Björk’s tremulous voice floated soothingly over a sea of swimming strings. The orchestra was composed entirely of string musicians — no percussion, woodwinds or brass, just two upright basses, 10 cellos and about 20 violins and violas. Her sad and poignant voice turned pleading on the second tune, “Lionsong,” as Bjarnason ushered in an occasional stomach-dropping swoon of violins that echoed Björk’s rueful confessions.

“This is our last time together,” she confided prophetically on the night’s third song, “History of Touches,” as the orchestra held back and gave her voice more space to wallow during one of the evening’s most powerfully stirring moments. The silences eventually took over until only Björk’s breathy sighs could be heard floating up into the ether of the now-solemn theater.

The interplay of cycling strings melded together like a harmonium into an ominously eerie rumble on “Black Lake,” building so much momentum that the crowd finally couldn’t help cheering and whooping as it were a rad guitar solo. “Did I love you too much?” Björk intoned, answering her own question with her mournful delivery.

Björk's Mournful Melodies Thrill in Orchestral Arrangements at Disney Hall
Santiago Felipe

The strings mutated further on the next song, “Family,” into a dissonant low hum of beehive buzzing that was contrasted by Björk’s voice, which soared clearly and brightly above the fuzzy murk. After all the emotional ardor and sadness of the first five songs from Vulnicura, “Notget” felt like a rare moment of solace and optimism before the vocalist dashed back into the wings to a standing ovation just before intermission.

Despite the air of desolation that lingered and settled into every oddly angled corner and nook and cranny of Disney Hall, much of the crowd buzzed excitedly about the first half of the concert during intermission. Several fans were dressed up in homage to Björk’s madcap fashion sense, including a woman in a vibrantly colored floral dress topped with a black lace Mardi Gras–style mask and another woman whose face was wreathed in a mermaidlike green plastic net. A young man posed in the lobby in a semi-sheer white dress that resembled a mummylike swaddling of bandages, while another guy was decked out in a satin suit with his face wrapped in a goalie mask–style nest of wooden sticks with pink and red carnations woven into the latticework.

But none of them could match the impact Björk made when she marched back onstage for the second half of the concert in another dazzling outfit. She wore a billowing, capelike violet-lavender satin dress over puffy silver pants and a ridiculously high pair of silver platform heels. Her face was shrouded again, this time in a beautiful white, swanlike bejeweled mask as she cooed the set’s first oldie, “Aurora,” from 2001’s Vespertine. The violinists muted and plucked their strings to get an icy, underwater tone as Björk sang, “I tumbled down on my knees/Fill the mouth with snow.”

The clomp of her platforms stomping across the stage’s wooden floor was the only sound besides her restrained voice and the strings on “I’ve Seen It All,” from the Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. A song later, she emerged “hungry and curious” within the tense buildup of strings as she put her life back together on “Vertebrae by Vertebrae.”

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“I’m a tree that grows hearts,” she offered optimistically on “Bachelorette,” from 1997’s Homogenic, as a single violin wrapped itself consolingly around her melody with a hint of Old World tradition. Then it was back to another track from Vulnicura, the romantically affecting “Quicksand.” The studio version’s busy network of electronic beats was replaced by a buoyant push from the orchestra as Björk disclosed a moving litany of enigmatic statements (“When I am broken, I am whole”) and poetic imagery (“Where choreographed oxygen embroiders the air”). After Björk fell into the “black hole” of Vulnicura’s “Mouth Mantra,” she sang, “Can you cut it off?” just before she and the band stopped dramatically on a dime.

Beyond a few quick thank yous, Björk didn’t really talk much to the audience until the encore, when she introduced conductor Bjarnason and noted that “about 93 percent of the people here [in the orchestra] are locals.” The first encore song was the aptly titled “The Anchor Song,” the last song from her 1993 album, Debut, and the arrangement was stark, with just the fragile crumbling of the words spilling from her mouth against a lovely backdrop of austere strings. She closed the show with “Pluto,” from Homogenic, as Bjarnason and the orchestra worked up an urgently febrile tangle of strings that underscored Björk’s strength and determination to go on despite carrying around such a heavy heart. It was another dramatic peak in a series of cathartic emotional convulsions. The moment felt special, ephemeral and precious, especially as Björk’s next local appearance — at the FYF Fest in July — will be a more traditional show without an orchestra.

Set list below.

Björk's Mournful Melodies Thrill in Orchestral Arrangements at Disney Hall
Santiago Felipe

Set list:

Stonemilker
Lionsong
History of Touches
Black Lake
Family
Notget
(intermission)
Aurora
I've Seen It All
Jóga
Vertebrae by Vertebrae
Bachelorette
Quicksand
Mouth Mantra

Encore:
The Anchor Song
Pluto


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