Barry Humphries, Meow Meow and the Australian Chamber Orchestra Celebrate Weimar Germany’s Silenced Voices

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Barry Humphries’ Weimar Cabaret: Barry Humphries (conférencier/vocalist), Meow Meow (cabaret artist), Satu Vänskä (violin/vocalist), Australian Chamber Orchestra, Richard Tognetti (artistic director/violin), Cadogan Hall, London, 29.7.2016. (JPr)

Meow Meow and Barry Humphries during the Australian tour (c) Hazel Savage

HindemithKammermusik No.1, Op.24
Krenek – Excerpt from Jonny spielt auf (arr. Grandage); Selection from Potpourri
JežekBugatti Step
SpolianskyAlles Schwindel (arr. Grandage); Ach, er hasst (arr. Grandage); Wenn die beste Freundin (arr. Ziegler)
WeillSeeräuber-Jenny (arr. Grandage); Surabaya Johnny (arr. Grandage); Weill Tango-Habanera ‘Youkali’ for string quartet
Grosz Jazzband
TochGeographical Fugue
Schulhoff – Suite for Chamber Orchestra: VI. Jazz (arr. Tarkmann); Suite for Chamber Orchestra: III. Tango (arr. Tarkmann); Sonata Erotica
AbrahamMousie from Victoria and her Hussar (arr. Grandage)
BrandMaschinist Hopkins: Black Bottom – Jazz (arr. Tregear)
EislerAn den kleinen Radioapparat (arr. Grandage)
HollaenderWenn ich mir was wünschen dürfte (orch. Grandage); The Ruins of Berlin (orch. Grandage)

As I head soon to Bayreuth it reminds me of the tribute ‘Silenced Voices. The Bayreuther Festspiele and the Jews from 1876 to 1945’ seen there since 2012 that acknowledges long-passed musicians who once participated in the Bayreuth Festival, but who were persecuted due to their Jewish heritage. ‘Silenced Voices’ was also the theme for this well-meaning, thought-provoking but thoroughly-entertaining evening. Before the closing ‘Benares Song’ encore (from the 1930 Brecht/Weill Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) Barry Humphries explained – as if we had not realised – the duality of all the music we had just heard. On the one hand, it was fun-loving music (‘adventurous, experimental, exciting’), full of gaiety and a celebration both of sexual licentiousness and liberation; yet there was almost a constant undercurrent that was predictive of the impending end of these good times due to the rise to power of the Nazis.

Humphries has had a love affair with the music of Weimar Germany since discovering it as a child in Melbourne. It was that glorious interval between 1919 and 1933 when the arts flourished – almost in an act of desperation – as an antidote to the insidious evil of the rise of fascism. He was ‘acting’ as conférencier (master of ceremonies) but as he said himself ‘I stand before you heavily disguised as myself’. There were some well-informed comments and anecdotes about what we were hearing, plus many of Humphries’ typical wickedly irreverent asides including giving a description of Hitler which was clearly comparing him to Donald Trump but without actually naming him … as well as asking what has happened to dandruff! There was lots of name-dropping of those he had met – and why not as Humphries has had a long life – but one the funniest stories was of discovering Misha Spoliansky in London and considering asking him for a song for his alter ego, Dame Edna, whom he described as ‘the Moonee Ponds kookaburra’. Since Spoliansky had written in his early days for the young Marlene Dietrich, Humphries said he thought at the time this would be a suitable ‘bookend’ to his career!

Humphries was particularly harsh when talking about his mother saying that through her how ‘I discovered the presence of anti-Semitism before I discovered the presence of Jews’ because of her and other locals’ reaction to those fleeing persecution and settling in Australia. He reminded us how at the time the war was on the front pages of the newspapers ‘where sport is today’. When he said his mother got some dresses made by Mitzi from Vienna he added she must have regarded her ‘as an honorary member of the Church of England.’ (This reminded me how my own mother – who fled Vienna before WWII to come to England – actually did make my Jewish grandmother an honorary C of E member to get her buried in a particular cemetery!)

Humphries’ joy of performing was such that he sometimes appeared decades younger than his 82 years and his love for the music we heard runs deep and he dedicated the evening ‘to the memory of the man who brought it to Australia in a suitcase.’ That man was Richard Edmund Beyer and the story of its discovery was in the programme: ‘Trawling through the second-hand bookstores of Melbourne in the late 1940s I came across a stack of sheet music published by the famous Universal Company in Vienna in the 1920s. None of the composers were familiar … The bookseller, Mr Evans of Swanston Street, was asking next to nothing for this obscure collection so I bought them all and went home with Ernst Krenek, Erich Korngold, Kurt Weill, Franz Schreker and their colleagues in my weighty Gladstone bag.’ Poignantly he later adds how during his first visit to Vienna in the early 1960s he sought out any recordings for the composers he had discovered ‘Not only did they not have any recordings but they had never heard of the composers I mentioned!’ Thankfully the efforts of many – including the redoubtable Humphries – has given these Silenced Voices their voice back!

In Rodney Fisher’s loose direction there was an all-pervading haze at the front of the Cadogan Hall and some other atmospheric lighting effects throughout the evening. The musicians of the Australian Chamber Orchestra – wearing fedoras and appropriately dark clothes for the 1930s –  informally wander onto the platform playing snatches of music before the concert begins. Although performed before (in 2013) by the same forces during an Australian national tour, the first half seemed poorly constructed beginning with some overlong Hindemith but it came to life once Humphries and cabaret singer Meow Meow were more involved. Even though some energetic – though amusingly haphazard – dancing to some Kurt Weill music caused Humphries to ask ‘Is there a cardiologist in the house – even a choreographer?’

Fellow-Australian Meow Meow gave further evidence – if any was needed – of why she is one of cabaret’s best post-modern artists. She has a focused and flexible voice which shifts easily from a sultry smokiness to clear and agile operatic antics. If singing in German, she has a wonderful ability to overcome a language barrier (there were no surtitles and it was too dark to read song translations) and so dramatize the meaning of any song. This came to the fore in two Weill numbers Pirate Jenny and Surabaya Johnny. In Spoliansky’s satirical Alles Schwindel which dwells on the negative social consequence of the post-WWI economy, Meow Meow discovered in it (as elsewhere) the absolute right mix of gravity, cynicism, comedy and pending catastrophe. Her embodiment of Schulhoff’s infamous Dadaist recreation of the female orgasm, Sonata Erotica, is indescribable and worth buying a ticket for on its own. There was a delightfully playful duet of Spoliansky’s Sapphic Wenn die beste Freundin with accomplished principal violinist, Satu Vänskä coming out of the orchestra to show what a fine singer she is too. There was sadness but also some well-founded optimism in her account of Hollaender’s – The Ruins of Berlin from Billy Wilder’s film, A Foreign Affair. Before Meow Meow’s wonderfully poignant ‘Benares Song’ with Barry Humphries, he had shed one of his velvet dinner jackets for silk pyjamas and there was the rollicking delight of their duet of Abraham’s fairly risqué Mousie as they played a couple discussing what they have got up to the night before.

After the almost endless Hindemith, Iain Grandage’s idiomatic arrangements jollied the evening along. There were some imaginative touches, such as in Eisler’s An den kleinen Radioapparat where we heard some air-raid siren noises as if someone in exile was listening to news of war victories. During their moments in the spotlight the musicians of the Australian Chamber Orchestra showed exemplary versatility from the jazziness of works by Krenek, Schulhoff, Grosz and Brand to beautifully phrased, deeply soulful and expressive tangos from Schulhoff and Weill. In Toch’s Geographical Fugue – which Humphries considered might be the first occurrence of rap in classical music – the musicians showed their vocal abilities by chanting place names in complex, contrapuntal rhythms. Richard Tognetti (the ACO’s artistic director) whether using a conventional violin – or on one occasion a very unconventional electronic one –  was virtuosic throughout. He was aided and abetted by his excellent small ensemble featuring many fine individual performances from not only Satu Vänskä’s violin but also the woodwind and brass players, percussion, guitar/banjo, accordion and Ben Dawson at the piano.

If you miss this not-to-be-missed evening at the Cadogan Hall, try to be there at the Edinburgh Festival or Tanglewood … or if ever it gets put on again.

Jim Pritchard

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