This weekend's performance by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at the University of California Los Angeles's Royce Hall featured a number of songs by Kurt Weill that have become popular standards. But the performance was far from carefree events. Part of Life Every Voice, a three-week festival curated by LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane, the concert served as a tribute to émigrés from Nazi Germany and leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement.
The evening opened with the "Song-Suite for Violin and Orchestra," comprised of songs by German Kurt Weill, arranged by the composer Paul Bateman. The piece was a vehicle for violin soloist Daniel Hope. The first half of the music featured Weill's more expressionistic songs; they melodies are infectious and hummable, but also strangely off-kilter, like something that might pop up in a demented cabaret. The music shifted into a gorgeous jazz ballad with "My Ship," before ending with Weill's most recognizable number, "Mack the Knife" from "The Threepenny Opera." The song-suite was reminiscent of recordings Zubin Mehta and Michael Tilson Thomas made of George Gershwin standards in the 1970s. Like those recordings, there wasn't room for much development in the music, but it didn't really matter. Weill's melodies are intriguing and memorable enough to stand on their own, even in fairly simple arrangements. The audience cheered at the music's conclusion.
Kahane spoke to the audience during a conversation before the concert and again before the next piece, relating his family's connection to the Holocaust. He told a remarkable story of his grandfather, who was interred in the Buchenwald camp for a few weeks before being released. He escaped aboard the last ship out of Hamburg before the ill-fated "Voyage of the Damned," an ocean liner with Jewish refugees who were denied entry to Cuba and the United States. In his '90s, the man was present at Sunday's concert. Kahane's speech was a thinly-veiled reference to Donald Trump's recent inauguration and the protests that erupted across the globe. "My family knows what fascism looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like, tastes like," he said.
Hope returned for the second piece, the West Coast premiere of a 2015 violin concerto by Bruce Adolphe: "I Will Not Remain Silent." The work was in two movements, subtitled "Nazi Germany" and "American Civil Rights." Hope has performed the music of composers imprisoned in the Teresienstadt death camp, so the subject was of great importance to him. The music was inspired by Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who emigrated from Nazi German in 1937 and went on to campaign during the American Civil Rights Movement. Prinz's son, Rabbi Jonathan Prinz, also attended the Sunday concert.
The "Nazi Germany" movement of the concerto was tense and mysterious. A sense of dread was palpable, and Hope's violin gave a series a high-pitched wails that sounded like terrified screams. The "American Civil Rights" movement opened on a warmer note. It brought to mind images of a boat sailing into a clear harbor with reassuring chords from the strings. But the music shifted and mutated, adopting much of the dissonance of the first section. Images of beatings and firehoses came to mind.
The orchestra closed with a return to Kurt Weill's music. LACO performed "The Seven Deadly Sins," a sung ballet with libretto by Bertolt Brecht, written after Weill had left Germany but before he relocated to the U.S. Storm Large of the pop Orchestra Pink Martini sang the role of Anna, while the Hudson Shad vocal quartet commented on the action, both as her family and a kind of Greek chorus. Anna travels with her family across the U.S., stopping in various big cities, each one demonstrating one of the seven deadly sins. Large was commanding in the role, effortlessly transforming from a naïve girl experiencing the world for the first time to a woman weary of its trials. Weill's music was filled with much more tension than the songs that opened the program. The piece found a middle route between his earlier avant garde works and the more popular theater works that made him famous.
The evening ended with cheers and a standing ovation for Large and the orchestra. She sang a piece of her own for an encore, "Stand up for Me." Large originally wrote the song to advocate for marriage equality, but it took on new meaning coming after the election of Donald Trump and a day after massive national protests. "Stand up for me, for your great grandmother/for you father, brother, and each other, and everyone." It was a fitting finale for a night devoted to courage and compassion.
Reach Staff Reporter Brian Marks here.