By Richard S. Ginell
GLENDALE, Cal. –When Jeffrey Kahane and his Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra were planning their “Lift Every Voice” Festival, they obviously knew it would occur during the days before and after the 2017 presidential inauguration. What they couldn’t have known was how amplified its relevance and resonance would be.
“Lift Every Voice” was supposed to be an idealistic two-week (Jan. 14-29) investigation of music as a vehicle for protest and reconciliation, loaded with concerts and symposiums. It centered upon three historical figures, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Joachim Prinz, and composer Kurt Weill, all of whom had something important to say about civil rights in America. The timing revolved not only around the inauguration but also Dr. King’s birthday (Jan. 15) and the fact that this is Kahane’s last season as music director of the LACO after 20 years on the job.
But then the election happened. The outcome was not what the majority of the country expected — or wanted — and on Jan. 21, women (and many men, too) took to the streets in unprecedented droves to protest. In downtown Los Angeles, early crowd estimates were as high as 750,000. Some of the protestors had tickets to the first of the LACO’s “Lift Every Voice” concerts that evening in nearby Glendale’s Alex Theatre — and when they got there, the day’s activities, issues, and emotions dovetailed into the music that had been programmed long ago. Talk about uncanny!
Kahane was on top of the situation. A pre-concert discussion with violinist Daniel Hope addressed their family histories of escaping oppression — Kahane’s from the Holocaust, Hope’s from both Nazi Germany and South Africa. During the concert, Kahane gave an impassioned speech that rambled from Mozart’s operas — cleverly linking Don Giovanni and Count Almaviva to the object of the day’s street protests without mentioning his name – to the unfinished struggle for civil rights. With the protestors in mind, he concluded, “The people cannot, must not, will not, remain silent!” If anyone disagreed, they kept it to themselves.
Almost but not quite lost in all of the day’s tumult was the central focus of this concert, Weill, who — wouldn’t you know it? — happened to be related to Kahane (a cousin of his grandmother). Weill remains a puzzling figure in the general sweep of 20th–century music. His Berlin music practically defines the ambience of the Weimar Republic between the wars, but as far as German musical tradition is concerned, he doesn’t fit into an accepted line of succession. He contributed notably to Broadway and the Great American Songbook, but he is only occasionally mentioned on lists of the significant American theater composers and songwriters. He took big musical risks on both continents, never afraid to tackle major issues, yet the taint of “sellout” to commercial tastes continues to follow him. He had the elitist touch and the common touch concurrently, and people are still trying to sort it out.
As a refresher course on Weill’s winning way with a tune, Kahane and Hope offered something called Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra (a U.S. premiere), an amiable 19-minute potpourri of Weillian standards from Berlin and Broadway as arranged for Hope by Paul Bateman. Without imposing himself much, Bateman simply let the melodies pour out to the beat of a fox-trot, with Hope occasionally given an elaborate obbligato for a chorus or two. Basically, the piece sounded like something the Boston Pops would have done in Arthur Fiedler’s day; all that was missing were tables and chairs and the crowd humming along to “Speak Low,” “September Song,” “Mack the Knife,” and the rest.
Next was Bruce Adolphe’s portrait of Rabbi Prinz in the form of a violin concerto subtitled “I Will Not Remain Silent” (apropos Kahane’s speech). Consistent to a fault, Prinz advised fellow Jews to get out of Nazi Germany before it was too late, fled from there to America, and took up the cause of Dr. King and the civil rights movement. Adolphe has the solo violin adopting the role of Prinz, a “passionate, urgent” (in Prinz’s words) advocate in the face of angular, tough, dissonant orchestral opposition representing first the Nazis and, later in the piece, a less-violent-but-still-menacing white supremacy in the American South.
This was far from the first time a concerto for soloist vs. orchestra has been tried; Lutoslawski’s Cello Concerto comes immediately to mind. But it is an effective tactic, and this piece ends with a hopeful, Jewish-tinged coda. Perhaps Hope could have been more passionate and urgent, but he played well, with impeccable intonation, and he topped it off with Ravel’s simple, mournful solo treatment of the Kaddish.
Weill’s cantata/ballet The Seven Deadly Sins — or Die sieben Todsünden in German — was his last major completed collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and also, I think, one of his best, most consistently inspired pieces. Stemming from Weill’s two-year Parisian interlude on the way from Berlin to New York, the cynical realism of the text is tempered with the score’s heart and toughness in a near-perfect balance. But it was undervalued in Weill’s lifetime and wasn’t even published at the time of his death. And though the piece enjoys more respect now, it’s still not that well known; when heard, it’s usually trotted out as a vehicle for a noted chanteuse or diva working in the long shadow of Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya.
Enter Storm Large, the tall, blonde singer/actress/author/composer who obliterated all hints of Lenya with an overpoweringly sexy, monumentally all-American take on the piece. Large fused the split role of pragmatic Anna I and hedonistic Anna II, singing the former with a strong, clearly enunciating voice as heard through amplification, and acting out the latter in a revealing slinky black gown. The exhortations and moralisms of Anna’s “family” were robustly handled by a male vocal quartet that calls itself Hudson Shad — veterans of “dozens” of Seven Deadly Sins performances. Kahane conducted with the right vigor and bounce; the LACO’s players sometimes seemed to hang on tightly in whirlwind passages, but they made it through unscathed.
The piece was sung in what sounded like the W.H. Auden/Chester Kallman English translation, one that doesn’t fit the music as well as Brecht’s German text does. But it was far preferable that this performance be sung in the language of its audience (Weill would probably have thought so, too). This paid off big-time at one point. During the “Anger” section — set in, of all places, Los Angeles — Anna I tells her other half to restrain her dislike of injustice in order to get ahead, whereupon Large dipped into her bag and, with the day’s protests in mind, defiantly put a pink “pussy cap” on her head. The room exploded with applause.
This weekend, as the climax of “Lift Every Voice,” Kahane and the LACO attempt a bigger challenge — two fully-staged performances of Weill’s last completed work for Broadway, Lost in the Stars, in UCLA’s Royce Hall Jan. 28 and 29. Lost in the Stars, based on Alan Paton’s novel about South Africa in the apartheid era, Cry, the Beloved Country, is a parable on American apartheid, a subject commercial theaters avoided in 1949. Not only will this be the first L.A. performances of this piece since the original 1950 touring road show, but it is also the first time the LACO has put on a fully-staged production of anything (although the ensemble served as LA Opera’s resident pit orchestra early in the opera company’s history).
Weill once said he wrote for today and didn’t give a damn about writing for posterity. But he is having it both ways, speaking out to audiences then and now.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.