Monday, February 22, 2010

I wish I were a chicken

Cultural event of the season – for me, at least – was the appearance of Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester at the Paramount in Oakland the other night. If you have never been in that wonderful art deco theater built by Timothy Pflueger (who also built the Castro Theater in San Francisco) it’s worth making a special effort to get there. It was declared a U.S. national landmark in 1977.

Max Raabe made it look and feel as if the place was built expressly for him. Described in the New York Times as "a wised-up adult choirboy with a slightly seductive glint in his eye," Raabe appears in white tie and tails and a high collar, has a Fred Astaire frame and proud bearing and seems born to the task of reviving the music of the twenties and thirties. Raabe’s voice is unmistakable. He is a baritone but sings much of his repertoire in a high tenor. His range is prodigious. And the band is his match. Except for the pianist and main violinist, the twelve artists all do more than one instrument or do vocals as well. Together they display a breathtaking array of talent.

I cannot do a critical review of the performance. Not only do I lack the skills to be a decent music critic, I can’t get past the feeling that writing about artistic performance is like writing an essay on a sexual experience. It’s something one throws oneself into, not something one writes about. Besides, watching Fred Astaire dance or singing Cole Porter tunes is Geschmacksache (a question of taste). I understand there are people out there who actually don’t like opera. A man who sings in a falsetto about his friend the gorilla with a villa in the zoo or the cactus on his balcony or the times he wishes we was a chicken is not everyone’s cup of tea. So let me just say I think this was more fun than I’ve had at a concert in many many years. If you are into the music, give a listen. And if you can possibly catch these guys live sometime, don’t let it pass you by.

What I do want to share is a couple of background bits of a story that might easily be missed. The program was introduced by the German Consul General in San Francisco, Peter Rothen. When Rothen mentioned the German Consul’s sponsorship of the event there was thunderous applause. Germany’s in the groove, as far as Bay Area locals are concerned. Raabe sang a good part of the concert in English, but there was no mistaking this as a German, and specifically a Berlin, cultural event. Thinking back, there have not been a whole lot of those in past years.

What the audience experienced was a return to the music of the Weimar Republic and a time when Berlin was known as a world class center of popular culture, theater, cabaret and music. The postwar division of Germany pretty much kept Berlin from regaining its former position, but the signs are appearing that Berlin is back. Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester bring back not only the age of flappers and big band music; they bring back a time when Germany had much to offer internationally.

Raabe doesn’t come out of nowhere. What may not be very widely known is the debt he owes to a musical group called the Comedian Harmonists, six musicians of the 20s and 30s I learned about not long ago from Australian friends of mine who grew up in what was Czechoslovakia but emigrated to Germany before settling in Australia. Despite their awkward name, one has no trouble understanding why they inspired imitators. They themselves were inspired by the American group, the Revelers, a male sextet, part vaudeville, part barber shop, known for such songs as Baby Face and Dinah.

In 1927 the Comedian Harmonists formed a group in Germany to sing the Revelers’ kind of music. The group had enormous success for about five years until the Nazis came to power, far exceeding that of the group they originally intended to imitate. The made a dozen films, appeared with the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Josephine Baker, and sold millions of records before they were forced to disband and flee the country. Three of their members were Jews and a fourth was married to a Jewish woman. Their leader attempted to revive the group in New York, but was unable to make it work, in large part because of hostility to anything German during the war years.

Various attempts have been made to draw attention to the Comedian Harmonists. A documentary about the survivors (they all survived the war) was made in 1975, and more recently, Barry Manilow and Bruce Sussman have been trying to get a play entitled Harmony to Broadway, all without a lot of success. There’s also a 1997 movie made about them available from Netflix called The Harmonists.

With the growth of Max Raabe’s popularity, some of that may be beginning at last to be put right. Raabe is calling attention to the fact that much of the art and talent of the Weimar Republic was Jewish. The connection with the Comedian Harmonists makes that obvious to anyone who looks into the origins of Raabe’s repertoire, but Raabe has now taken a step to make the connection much more explicit. His latest recording is a CD entitled “Über’s Meer” – “Across the Sea” – and it refers to the Germans, many of them Jews, who lived their lives out in exile but kept their music alive. It is not yet available for distribution in the United States, although most of the songs are available as MP3 downloads.

Max Raabe’s success should go a long way to helping bring that lost history to light. The CD is on the best seller charts in Germany – no mean feat for a singer doing thirties music with only a piano for accompaniment, even if it is the accomplished Christoph Israel. Raabe decided the band had too much razzle-dazzle and slapstick to suit his purposes. Where the band pieces are slapstick, Übers Meer is contemplative. Instead of irony, this time there is melancholy.

From the American Revelers to the German Comedian Harmonists to German Jewish exiles in America to Max Raabe in Germany to the Oakland Paramount Theater and an evening in which people show up in top hat and tails and arrive in well-preserved Packard Automobiles to hear songs that tie Cole Porter to Kurt Weill sung by a cross between Cary Grant and the Marx brothers.

So much to take in.

The cultural history.

The politics.

The poetry…

Ich wollt', ich wär' ein Huhn,
(I wish I were a chicken)

Ich hätt' nicht viel zu tun,
(I wouldn't have much to do)

Ich legte vormittags ein Ei,
(I'd lay an egg in the morning)

Und abends wär' ich frei.
(And in the evening I'd be free.)


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