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S & H International Concert Review

Courvoisier Meets Rot-gut: a culture clash in the concert hall, Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins with Ute Lemper and the Philadelphia Orchestra by Bernard Jacobson


Many years ago, the difficulties a Frenchman encountered when he tried to put subtitles to an American film proved to me that the two countries concerned would never understand each other. "Barkeep, give me a shot of rot-gut," growled John Wayne. "Un Courvoisier, s’il vous plaît, monsieur," was the closest our unfortunate translator could get.

I was reminded of that Franco-American and more broadly Euro-American cultural gulf when the Philadelphia Orchestra performed Kurt Weill’s Seven Deadly Sins at its first subscription concerts of the New Year. There on stage was the solo vocalist, Ute Lemper, a slim, blond, stunningly sexy lady in a long, red, slinkily sexy gown, as Aryan-looking as anyone could be, exuding Austro-German sophistication at every pore; and around her, in front of a sturdily American audience, were gathered the musicians of the Philadelphia Orchestra, members of a no less sturdily American cultural institution, with Aryans considerably in the minority. It looked just like the Courvoisier/rot-gut dichotomy.

Don’t misunderstand me: the Philadelphia Orchestra men and women (many of whom, in any case, come of European or Asian forebears) are highly sophisticated musicians in their own right. It was just that the earnestly proper picture they present on stage–its propriety rooted as much in the symphony orchestra ethos as in anything specifically American–seems worlds distant from the cabaret, night-clubby atmosphere associated with Weill and his collaborator Bertolt Brecht. I should add too that the two-cultures effect was indeed highly appropriate to the scenario of those artists’ "Spectacle in Nine Scenes,"for it chronicles the odyssey of two unmistakably Germanic sisters through seven American cities in quest of their fortune. So what we saw that evening in Philadelphia’s Verizon Hall was a neat visual counterpart to what Brecht and Weill were telling us about.

The performance, moreover, was splendid, on the part alike of Ms Lemper and her supporting quartet of male singers, of the orchestra, and of guest conductor Carlos Kalmar–himself, piquantly enough, a native of Uruguay who has made the cross-Atlantic pilgrimage in the other direction and now lives in Vienna. I had been eager to hear Mr Kalmar in concert ever since encountering his impressive collaboration with Rachel Barton and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a superb recent recording of the Brahms Violin Concert on the Cedille label. His work in this program did not disappoint. He showed himself equally the master of Weill’s sleazy Berlinesque suggestiveness, the classical purity of Haydn’s great 98th Symphony, and the sumptuous Viennese warmth of a suite from Richard Strauss’s Rosenkavalier, which was played with winning grace and naturalness. Now principal conductor of the Grant Park Music Festival in Chicago, and recently appointed music director of the Oregon Symphony, Mr Kalmar is definitely a talent to watch.

Bernard Jacobson




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