Reviewer: Ron Simpson
From Helsinki to Theresienstadt began with the nifty five-piece band playing a Viennese/Jewish street song, full of ragtimey piano and comedy percussion, and ended with three songs by Hermann Leopoldi, one of them, Composers’ Revolution in Heaven, written during his New York years, an English-language comedy based on 1940s pop songs stealing melodic ideas from classical composers.
So, although part of the Out of the Shadows festival that particularly highlights the lost (and found) music of the Holocaust, the concert by the New Budapest Orpheum Society of Chicago had a much broader scope and, quite often, a light-hearted tone. However, beneath the cosy jollity the tragic history of the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe informed the whole evening.
Hermann Leopoldi is a case in point. In Stewart Figa’s animated and pointed performance his songs were a comic climax to the evening, but one of them dealt wittily with the problems of Czech Jews in exile and Leopoldi’s own remarkable life story involved surviving Dachau and Buchenwald and migrating to the United States where he resumed his successful cabaret career before returning to Vienna.
At the centre of the programme were three sets of songs which the researchers of Performing the Jewish Archive had discovered. Each was introduced by the researcher responsible. Despite the cabaret layout, the evening always had traces of the lecture hall, with artistic director Philip V. Bohlman also adding a learned commentary.
Jac Weinstein’s lyrics to existing tunes written for shows in Helsinki shone a light on a unique World War II situation, where Finnish Jews fought alongside Germans against the Soviets, though perhaps the Yiddish version of a Russian song suggests where their sympathies lay.
Terezin was the source of a fine set of songs sung by Julia Bentley, the melancholy The Suitcase and Me with its jazzy accompaniment having traces of Kurt Weill, The Cow a very funny satire on graft in the food supplies and the final song from the revue Prinz Bettliegend projecting a jaunty optimism that conjured up Gracie Fields in Sing as We Go, pretty remarkable given that the Jews of Terezin had bigger problems than the closure of a mill.
The third set of newly-discovered material gave the excellent pianist Ilya Levinson a chance to shine in the accompaniments to Wilhelm Grosz’s art-song settings of Jewish songs from East Europe.
In a bad week for international tolerance, referenced by Bohlman, the multi-national network of Jewish culture stood out, with songs in Yiddish, German, Czech, and English. The great film director, Billy Wilder, was the personification of the cosmopolitan Jew: born in Galicia (then Austro-Hungary, now Poland), moved to Berlin, escaped Nazism to become possibly the wittiest writer/director in Hollywood. So it was good to hear the songs Friedrich Hollander wrote for Marlene Dietrich in Wilder’s 1948 film, A Foreign Affair, filmed on location in the ruins of Berlin.
The most entertaining segment of the evening, devoted to Yiddish films of the 1930s, was also the most international. For instance, Ikh Sing, performed with great flair and authenticity by Figa and with the accordion hinting at a sort of Jewish La Mer, was taken from the film Mamele, filmed in Poland with American stars and musicians from Vienna, the song co-written by the famous New York Jewish actress Molly Picon.
Despite a certain amount of conventional operetta fare, the evening was a rewarding mix of the academic, the entertaining and the thought-provoking.
Reviewed on 18 June 2016 | Image: Contributed