Sunday, September 18, 2022

Berlin 1938: Broadcasts from a Vanishing Society

This was a concert I attended today, my first in the City since June. It was held in the post theatre on the Presidio, the old military reservation near the Golden Gate (now decommissioned and held by the NPS), and the reason it was held there was because the post theatre was built in 1939, making it vaguely contemporary with the show.

It was put on by the New Century Chamber Orchestra, normally a classical outfit but which remade itself into a 1930s cabaret band for the occasion. The idea was to convey an emotional understanding of a fraught time in world history through its popular music.

It was constructed as a series of news bulletins running through events of the Euroamerican year - including the biggies like the Anschluss, Munich, and Kristallnacht, but also cultural events - read by two announcers, seated at desks by the side of the stage, through microphones that distorted their voices to make them sound like they were coming over the radio. One was German (speaking with supertitles, but also sometimes in English) supposedly from Berlin, the other American supposedly from New York.

And every once in a while one or both would move to center stage and sing, undistorted, a song that reflected on the news they'd been reading, for both of them were actually singers only moonlighting as pseudo-announcers. The American was the noted baritone Thomas Hampson.

The songs were mostly sarcastic German cabaret songs, and at the end they rewrote Lili Marlene to turn it into a sarcastic German cabaret song. Imagine Tom Lehrer with a more brutal German sense of humor. (And in fact I learned while looking one of the composers, Georg Kreisler, up, that he also once wrote a song called "Taubenvergiften im Park," which, I swear to God, means "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park." But even translated, the song isn't as funny as Lehrer's.)

There were also a few American songs, Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine" and a couple numbers from Kurt Weill's Knickerbocker Holiday (Weill being of course originally German himself, but you couldn't tell it from this).

Anyway, interesting show, if not quite what I was expecting, with parallels to current events left for the listener to discern.

And it was all the way up in the Presidio - that meant driving there and through its twisty unfamiliar precincts, though I've been to this venue before - on the first rainy day of the year. This was traditional California rain: no sudden heavy downpours; a cloud front just moves in and drops a heavy drizzle on you for the whole day. After running around with a lot of other customers trying to get parking permits from a series of broken machines (never mind, nobody ticketed us), I was both soaked through and plumbed out by the time I got to the hall.

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