The celebratory atmosphere or Stimmung of Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s-a heady mixture of decadence, anxiety, and ambiguity-remains a high point in the history of culture. Made popular with American audiences by the hit Broadway show Cabaret, this scene has been the subject of dozens of popular novels, plays, and memoirs, but none until now have captured the peculiar intensity of the popular music of the period-unless you are familiar with the work of Max Raabe & Palast Orchester. This unusual group of classically trained, theatrically inclined musicians has worked together for the better part of two decades under the leadership of singer Max Raabe. They will be in Santa Barbara tomorrow, Friday, October 17, at the Marjorie Luke Theater in what may be the under-the-radar knockout show of the season for UCSB’s Arts & Lectures. The group’s 2007 double disk, Heute Nacht Oder Nie, was recorded live at Carnegie Hall, and the evidence is very clear that this is at once one of the most meticulously rehearsed and researched musical history projects in the world right now. (Not to mention, one of the craziest, most out-of-control bands of any kind playing concerts.) The huge dynamics, quicksilver tempo and mood shifts, and delicate, perfectly articulated ensemble work add up to a potent cocktail-the musical equivalent of an Absinthe Cosmopolitan.
Raabe insists that what he and Orchester are doing is not mere antiquarianism. “It’s not a revival,” he explained last week via phone. “As classical music students in Berlin [at the Berlin University of the Arts from 1988 to 1995], we fell in love with this repertoire. Once I was introduced to it, I wondered why there was no orchestra like this today.” Taking it upon himself to re-create a typical dance band of Weimar Berlin, Raabe chose from among his fellow music students and began to scour the backstreet shops and flea markets for original sheet music and arrangements. He drew inspiration from groups like the Comedian Harmonists, a German ensemble of the ’20s and ’30s consisting of five singers and a piano that covered a lot of the material that he was interested in-the so-called “Schlager,” or pop hits of the era. Arranging these songs for the dance band gave Raabe and his musicians the opportunity to express their wit, demonstrate their virtuosity, and most of all, conjure a certain mood.
“If you think of Cole Porter and the characteristics that make his songs so recognizable, then you have a good idea of what we are aiming for all the time, in the German songs, as well,” said Raabe, who has recorded everything from “Cheek to Cheek” and “These Foolish Things” to “Oops I Did It Again,” a version of the Britney Spears tune that Raabe says is charting right now in Thailand. “Who knows why?” he said. “Maybe they think I am Britney, there.” The SuperHits album, from which the Spears cover was taken, was one of the band’s more outrageous forays. When Raabe speaks of it he sounds philosophical and slightly bemused-yet another example of his overarching Cole Porter state of mind. “Sometimes we do things just to be a little crazy, and then the next day it’s like, well, ‘we don’t need to do that again.’ But with SuperHits, the idea was just the challenge of actually doing all the songs in the top 10 for that year, however we could. And although that’s not what we do now, it served us well by getting us into places we might never otherwise have gone. In Europe, the record was a real top 10 super hit in its own right, especially in places like Latvia, where it went to number one.”
When I asked Raabe what drove him to dedicate so much of his career to refining this particular aesthetic, he became impassioned. “What makes this repertoire so consistently appealing to me is that it allows me to employ a fixed group who are all gifted musicians and also capable of acting a role. Onstage, we are more than a group convened to play the notes on a page-we are a theater group playing instruments, and the concerts are like plays about the music and the time.” As for the music of the Weimar period, for Raabe it is “the most elegant pop music ever written. It is a mirror of this interesting and crazy time; full of bittersweet irony, but in a hep tone. It’s really the first and last time that we have had this. Even the happy and funny songs are tinged with sadness. And these classical musicians that I bring together, each one is like a conductor, so we all love to talk about and practice the music and the arrangements. So there’s seriousness there, and lots of instrumental skill, but also, coming out of our familiarity with the material and our sympathy with it, there is the feeling of a bunch of traveling schoolgirls out on the road and being crazy. Both feelings are there, just as they were in the Berlin of the 1920s.”
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester will play the Marjorie Luke Theatre on Friday, October 17, at 8 p.m. For tickets and information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.