Ozawa Hall turned into a time machine Sunday, transporting the audience to a Weimar cabaret. Aided and abetted by Meow Meow and members of the Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (violin & artistic director), Barry Humphries presided over a foray into what the Nazi’s deemed degenerate (Entartete) music.
A suitcase of music Humphries purchased in the late 1940s from a Mr. Evans of Swanston Street, Melbourne supplied the conceit. Filled with music by Krenek, Korngold, Weill, Schreker, and colleagues, this collection once belonged to Richard Edmund Beyer (the name stamped on the sheets). Of Beyer we learn nothing, yet thanks to many years of persistence, study, and kismet, Humphries can present this concert. During the first half, Humphries told stories from the stage. Narrating this history and connecting dots among composers, he served as our Cicero to Weimar music. One telling anecdote: Humphries and David Hockney were in Los Angeles touring a re-creation of Hitler’s infamous “degenerate art” exhibit. Asked why he thought so many artworks had survived, Hockney replied, “Because somebody loved them.” Clearly Beyer loved this music enough to transport it to Melbourne, and Humphries enough to explore it, ultimately organizing this concert. And there is much here to love. Click here for the complete program.
Suitably louche musicians dressed in black pants, shirts, and fedoras milled about the hall, improvising before the concert began with Hindemith’s instrumental Kammermusik No. 1, op. 24, a delightfully expressive study in contrasts which ranged from manic to pensive with jazz inflections and crunchy, chromatic harmonies. The atmosphere was set. Humphries came to the fore, “disguised as myself” (as opposed to his more famous alter ego, Dame Edna), welcoming us in words lifted from Cabaret. Sporting Herman Munster drag (seemingly a velvet jacket with a double-rope closure in the front) Humphries embarked on patter combining ad libbed quips (describing man’s sartorial choices of an earlier decade as blue blazers with “epaulets of dandruff” will stay with me for years), historical background about Weimar culture, and details about the music and composers. A couple representative works illustrated Humphries’s points, including snippets of Krenek’s “Jonny spielt auf” and Ježek’s “Bugatti Step” (a jazzy number embracing a 1920s love of speed). Although Humphries did croon on a couple numbers, most of the singing fell to cabaret star Meow Meow (née Melissa Madden Gray, and not to be confused with that other Australian Meow-Ludo Disco Gamma Meow-Meow, politician for the Science Party). She made her entrance with Spoliansky’s “Jonny spielt auf” from Alles Schwindel, a number setting the stage for the movable morality of the time. Hailed as a “post-post-modern diva,” Meow Meow sings with a warmth, a profundity, and a grace, which animate the music and excite the ear. All were in evidence for Weill’s “Seeräuber-Jenny” from Die Dreigroschenoper. An absolute delight followed: musicians of the ACO put down their instruments and voiced the Dadaist proto-rap “Geographical Fugue” by Ernst Toch. Back to their instruments, they launched into Schulhoff’s “Jazz” from his Suite for Chamber Orchestra.
If the first half felt staid or restrained or even old-fashioned, what came after intermission seemed closer to the free-spirited ethos of 1920s and early 1930s Berlin. Abraham’s “Mousie” from Viktoria und ihr Husar and Spoliansky’s “Ach, er hasst” move the bedroom, bringing sex to the stage—be it playful or painfully (masochistically) serious. Meow Meow, joined by violinist Satu Vänskä (who has a remarkably rich and sultry voice), sang Spoliansky’s “Wenn die beste Freundin” which winks, nods, and nudges at lesbian attraction. (The staging, replete with kiss, removed ambiguities and updated this number for today’s audience.) Schulhoff’s “Sonata Erotica” (“Nur für Herren”) is a spoken-word work scored for “Solo-Muttertrompette” and consists of a woman simulating a multi-page orgasm in public. Equally shocking although in another vein is Krenek’s Potpourri, op. 54; with its whiff of death, the music is an admixture of styles. While it looks forward to Schnittke, it also looks back to Mahler; had he lived longer, Mahler could have written this.
The concluding piece Hollaender’s “The Ruins of Berlin” from the film, A Foreign Affair, with lyrics in the languages of the four occupying powers of postwar Berlin, thematizes the history of the Weimar Republic and nods to the destruction and the resurrection wrought upon Mitteleuropa in the mid-20th century.
The musical selection revives works largely forgotten, by composers often considered obscure, and makes an argument about the energy and vibrancy of Weimar culture. Jazz influences were prominent in rhythm, harmony, and form; innovation proceeded on multiple fronts at once, questioning rules of harmony, limitations of music, and confines of morality; musical explorations were playful and combinations of styles, differing musical traditions, abound. Much of the humor remains distinctly Germanic, and the prevalent audience (then, and now) remains a heterosexual majority sufficiently repressed to revel in the illicit nature of this cabaret.
There was an inherent anachronism to the concept. The suitcase of music takes us back several decades and Humphries embraced the retrograde nature of the undertaking. As the night advanced, the atmosphere took on a more sexual charge, even as it became more playful and energetic, less familiar or staid. The calibre of performance remained very high throughout the evening. The placement of composers whom we normally hear in isolation into a context provided an unexpected pleasure: Schulhoff and Krenek, for example, acquired a richness and depth I could not appreciate when I had earlier heard single compositions in isolation.
Never having heard Michael Tilson Thomas’s “An Evening with the Thomashevskys,” I cannot offer points of comparison between that re-animation of Yiddish vaudeville and this night of cabaret. Perhaps commentators can weigh in.
Barry Humphries and the Australian Chamber Orchestra deserve praise for undertaking a repertoire “so full of energy, excitement, and optimism and yet reflecting at times a premonitory hint of the cataclysm that would soon follow.” Let us hope that future such remain at bay.