Call of the Weill

It is sometimes said that there were two Kurt Weills--the avant-garde German classical composer and the prolific broadway tunesmith.

Weill (1900-1950) was the ultimate crossover artist, writing serious concert music--symphonies, chamber pieces, and famous satirical operas that shocked 1920s Berlin audiences--and memorable show tunes ("Mack the Knife," "September Song"). For decades, pundits have wearisomely weighed Weill's classical works against his forays into Broadway musicals after he fled the Nazis in 1933.

A true modernist, Weill had no use for such distinctions. "I have never acknowledged the difference between 'serious' music and 'light' music," said the composer of Vom Tod im Wald and Knickerbocker Holiday. "There is only good music and bad music."

Leo Najar, interim artistic director of the Ohio Chamber Orchestra, thinks the Weill controversy betrays our prejudices against popular music. "It's easy to disdain 'light' music," he says, noting that the Broadway Weill was no less brilliant than the Weimar wunderkind.

Najar will lead the OCO Saturday in a rare exploration of the "German Weill" at Severance Hall. "I thought it would be interesting to focus on the European works," he says. "It's the music of freethinkers and radicals, the music of dissent."

The program includes three of Weill's collaborations with the provocateur poet Bertolt Brecht: Das Berliner Requiem, Mahagonny Songspiel, and Kleine Dreigroschenmusik (Little Threepenny Music). Originally conceived as a weekend festival anticipating next year's Weill centenary, the tribute was trimmed due to funding constraints.

Of the three works, Mahagonny Songspiel is "musically the rawest and spikiest," Najar says, "and the most shocking in terms of subject." The 1927 piece, the first Weill-Brecht collaboration, is a short musical play about the corrupt denizens of an American boomtown called Mahagonny, who spend their time whoring, playing poker, and drinking whiskey. (Crossover alert: Its breakout hit, "Alabama Song," was covered by the Doors.) A satire on capitalist greed, Mahagonny portrays its bourgeois characters with affection, signaling the Marxist Brecht's political ambivalence. "Brecht talked about 'the people,'" Najar remarks, "but he liked his cigars and his comforts."

At the premiere of Mahagonny at the German resort of Baden-Baden, the middle-class audience was outraged by the tale of money-grubbers and whores. When the singers hoisted placards bearing anti-capitalist slogans, some jeered. The performers blew whistles Brecht had slipped them before the performance. "This was a rock and roll gesture in its time," Najar says. "Every generation has its protest music."

The rarely performed Das Berliner Requiem is a spare, haunting 1928 cantata for tenor, baritone, male chorus, and wind orchestra, with stirring anti-militaristic text by Brecht. Weill wrote Requiem on a commission from a Frankfurt radio station--he edited a radio journal and was enthusiastic about the new medium's social and artistic possibilities. He described the piece as "a secular requiem, an attempt to give expression to contemporary urban man's feelings about death." Bitterly eulogized are a drowned girl, a dead prostitute, and World War I's unknown soldiers.

Kleine Dreigroschenmusik, which closes the program, is a popular 1928 suite of music from Weill and Brecht's greatest success, The Threepenny Opera. Critic Theodor Adorno wrote about it at the time: "Hardly a melody is missing; they pass by in a throng that is so condensed that they sometimes get entangled in each other; and as they gather for their demonstration march, they hold on to each other--mutilated, damaged, used up, and yet still rebellious."

Weill's European music was not heard in the U.S. until after his death, and only gradually gained its deserved recognition. But Weill cared not a whit about his musical legacy. "I write for today," he said. "I don't give a damn about writing for posterity."

--Pamela Zoslov

The Ohio Chamber Orchestra presents works by Kurt Weill on Friday, January 29 at 8 p.m. at Severance Hall, 11001 Euclid Avenue. Tickets are $20 and $35. Call the orchestra at 216-721-3939, or Severance Hall at 216-231-1111.

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