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Portrait of a song-cycle

July 15th, 2019

Käthe Kollwitz. Self Portrait, 1924. Lithograph on laid paper, Sheet: 60.9 × 44.7 cm. Promised Gift of Dr. Brian McCrindle.  Image © Art Gallery of Ontario; Steven Thachuk courtesy of the artist; Anne Harley courtesy of the artist.

Have you ever wondered what the emotionally charged works and words of German artist Käthe Kollwitz would sound like? Us too! On July 17, as part of our AGO Live series of performances by emerging and celebrated artists, you’ll hear the inspiration from pages of Kollwitz’s diary come to life. Through a powerful multifaceted song-cycle, soprano Anne Harley, guitarist Steve Thachuk and composer Ralf Yusuf Gawlick bring AGO Live: Kollwitz-Konnex …Im Frieden Seiner Hände.

In 2013, Harley commissioned composer Ralf Gawlick to produce a stunning collection of songs based on passages from Kolllwitz’s diary and letters, and linked to nine of the artist’s self-portraits. The works will have their Canadian premiere, complementing our exhibition, Becoming Käthe Kollwitz.

We spoke with soprano Anne Harley to get her take on this powerful song-cycle performance. 

AGO: Käthe Kollwitz’s work is filled with challenging emotions. What feelings do you experience when performing the song-cycle?
Harley: When I’m performing the song-cycle, I always feel a range of conflicting emotions: profound sadness for Kollwitz, the horror of the two World Wars she witnessed, and a thankfulness for the expressive sanctuary that art provided for her. Always, these emotions are accompanied by an underlying sense of responsibility and gratitude for this remarkable piece of music.

AGO: How do the songs in the cycle differ?
Harley: The cycle takes you across Kollwitz’s life, movement by movement. It moves from innocence, through pain, to disenchantment, and finally expresses Kollwitz’s eventual acceptance of death. Each movement is paired with a self-portrait by Kollwitz, so that the audience has both a visual and aural guide as they trace her life together.
AGO: There is a great deal of social commentary found in Kollwitz’s work. Is this represented in the song-cycle?
Inspired by Kollwitz’s progressive series of self-portraits that reject prettiness and perfection in favour of truthful aging and pain, the guitarist Steve Thachuk and I arrived at a sound world for the piece that embraces the broken, the contemplative, the otherworldly, the rough and the tender. In this way, the cycle presents each audience member with a transformative artistic moment. When this music succeeds, like any sublime art, it causes us to fall in love with our own humanity and the humanity of others. This is an essential function at the root of a healthy non-violent society.

AGO: What are you looking forward to in performing at the AGO?
Harley: It is going to be so wonderful to perform in a space surrounded by Kollwitz’s original works! These are the very works that inspired the musical work in the first place. Kollwitz’s self-portraits will be displayed around the audience in the Marvin Gelber Print & Drawing Study Centre. It’s a very intimate space, which will give the performance a very personal quality, like a conversation, a confession, a prayer. It’s going to be a meaningful and special performance for all of us – performers and audience alike.

Tickets for the Canadian premiere of AGO Live: Kollwitz-Konnex …Im Frieden Seiner Hände are available now. Join us July 17 to experience this deeply complex song-cycle and visit our exhibition Becoming Kathe Kollwitz, on view until July 28.

Admission to the AGO Collection and all special exhibitions is always free for AGO MembersAGO Annual Pass holders and visitors 25 and under. For more information, please visit the website.

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