Posted in Books, Music

The Comedian Harmonists

comedian_harmonists
The Comedian Harmonists (L to R): Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Edwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommerman and Ari Leschnikoff

This photograph, which I first saw in the New York Times about twenty years ago, was my introduction to the Comedian Harmonists, one of the best vocal groups of the last century. Their history, as equally celebrated as their music, is a poignant story of lives interrupted and careers cut short by the Nazi regime.

Organized in Berlin in 1927, the Comedian Harmonists had a unique sound, though one quite reflective of Jazz Age music popular on both sides of the Atlantic. In descending vocal order, the group consisted of a high (lead) tenor, a second tenor, a swing vocalist who specialized in imitating musical instruments, a baritone and a bass. Mirroring the dance bands of that era, with their alto saxes wailing in the treble while a tuba or bass sax rumbled below, the Comedian Harmonists’ songs emphasized the same wide spectrum of sound. Their music featured leads sung by tenor Leschnikoff and bass Biberti, but the inner voices of second tenor Collin and baritone Cycowski were just as essential, if not more so, as were the arrangements by Frommerman, the group’s founder and faux instrumentalist, accompanied by Bootz at the piano.

Their repertoire covered a great deal of musical ground: traditional German folk songs, marches, novelty numbers about cactuses and crocodiles, classical pieces, operetta and popular tunes in at least four languages. My favorite songs are the contemporary numbers: the tango “Gitarren spielt auf,” “Wochenend und Sonnenschein” (“Happy Days Are Here Again”), “Du Armes Girl von Chor” (so very 20’s) and “In der Barzum Krokodil,” with a sly intro borrowed from the Nile Scene of Verdi’s “Aida.”

The Comedian Harmonists featured some wonderful arrangements, especially their version of “Stormy Weather” recorded in German (“Ohne Dich”) and French (“Quand il pleut”) with a lovely lead by second tenor Erich Collin. I’m also fond of their version of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day,” again in French (“Tout le jour, tout le nuit),” as well as the Italian “Ah Maria, Mari” with the soaring lead of Ari Leschnikoff, seconded by baritone Roman Cycowski, who stretches quite successfully into tenor territory. But if I had to pick an all-time Comedian Harmonists favorite, it would have to be “Der Onkel Bumba aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba,” perhaps their most intricate arrangement with its breakneck syncopation and bluesy ending. So much fun and a joy to hear.

Comedian Harmonists II

While the Comedian Harmonists were a true product of Weimar Germany, they soon ran into difficulty when the Nazis came to power. Three of the singers were of Jewish origin, though Frommerman and Cycowski were not observant, and both sides of Collin’s family had converted long before his birth. Because the group was an international money-maker, it was allowed to continue, though with a dwindling performance and recording schedule. Things finally ended in 1935 when the Comedian Harmonists were banned outright, with the Jewish contingent temporarily relocating to Austria and later to Australia, restaffing and performing as the Comedy Harmonists. Although Biberti, Bootz and Leschnikoff regrouped with additional singers as the Meistersextett, issues with the Nazis continued. Their repertoire, the majority of which had been written by Jewish composers, was gutted; their remaining novelty numbers were later banned as too frivolous for the war effort.

The Comedian Harmonists never reunited as a group. Their post-war lives took divergent paths: for years Frommerman and Collin tried unsuccessfully to revive their musical careers, forming and reforming other vocal groups; Leschnikoff suffered one financial disaster after another; and Biberti became an antique dealer and master wood craftsman. Bootz remained a performing musician and club impresario, but Cycowski’s life took the most radical turn. Following his father’s murder at the hands of Polish Nazi sympathizers, he rededicated himself to his faith and became a cantor, active until his death at the age of 97.

Interviews with the then-surviving members of the group appear in Eberhard Fechner’s 1976 documentary “Sechs Lebensläufe” (“Six Life Stories”) which, sad to say, isn’t commercially available in a version with English subtitles. However, the entire film (actually a two-parter made for German television) is available on YouTube. Even if you don’t know a word of German, it’s worth watching the first several minutes just to see Leschnikoff and Cycowski react to hearing their old recording of “Gitarren spielt auf.” The tenor smilingly responds with “Schoen” (“Beautiful”), but it’s even more gratifying to watch Cycowski listen as his younger self sings. There’s a justified look of pride in his eyes as he nods his approval and echoes Leschnikoff’s appraisal: “Schoen.”

The Comedian Harmonists have been the subject of other films and books, including the 1997  feature “The Harmonists,” directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, which unfortunately suffers from Hollywooditis in its fictionalized story of the group. However, we finally have a comprehensive history in English by Douglas E. Friedman, “The Comedian Harmonists,”  and there’s even a musical by Barry Manilow (“Harmony”) which has yet to make it to Broadway.

But there’s nothing like seeing the members of the group perform, and once again, YouTube comes through. There’s a truncated version of “Veronika, der Lenz ist da,” with Bootz grinning maniacally at the piano, and an intriguing clip from a 1936 Austrian film in which the Comedy Harmonists strut their stuff with musical instrument imitations. There’s no dearth of the group on CD, but I strongly recommend the remastered “History Records: Comedian Harmonists.” The sound is clear beyond belief, the artistry superb. This one shouldn’t be missed.

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Posted in Opera

State of the Art

Though New York”s winter weather has indeed been frightful, the music in this corner of the world has certainly been delightful.

When a performance of Handel’s “Theodora” was scheduled at Carnegie Hall for February 2nd, I was reluctant to buy a ticket. With New Jersey serving as host for the first time, this was Super Bowl Sunday, which meant ridership on the train to New York, not to mention security issues, threatened to be overwhelming. But “Theodora” was to feature Harry Bicket and the English Concert, joined by some expert Handelians, so I just had to go (P.S.: It turned out I had no trouble whatsoever with transportation that day).

Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious
Röschmann + Bicket + English Concert = Glorious

After a slow first act (Handel’s fault, not the performers’), the work just bloomed. Dorothea Röschmann, whose dark soprano was a perfect fit for the heroine, was simply on fire that afternoon. Sarah Connolly was a wonderful contrast as Irene, and David Daniels (Didymus), Kurt Streit (Septimius) and especially Neal Davies (Valens) were equally expert in their roles. I’m in awe of singers who perform Handel at this level—in addition to considerable vocalism, they’re required to complement the orchestral line in a manner that few other composers demand. But the key ingredients that day were Harry Bicket and the English Concert, who together with these soloists turned what is basically a one-line plot (Christians vs. Early Romans and we all know how that ends) into a musical spellbinder.

Next up was the Met’s new production of Borodin’s “Prince Igor,” a work that hadn’t been performed by the company in nearly 100 years. This one’s a great deal of fun for fans of the musical “Kismet,” like myself, since so much of the score of that show is derived from this opera—a phrase here, a few notes there, and of course, the “Polovtsian Dances,” a.k.a. “Stranger in Paradise.” What makes “Prince Igor” somewhat unique is that there isn’t a set edition of the score. Borodin died leaving entire sections of the work unfinished; Rimsky-Korsakov and Glazunov then split the responsibility of completing the opera and orchestrating it. The Met’s current version omits the Overture, yet adds other Borodin-composed music, and presents Igor’s encounter with Khan Konchak and the Polovtsians earlier than usual, this time immediately after the Prologue.

Prince Igor
Prince Igor

Musically, the performance I saw was extraordinary: conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, the opera was marvelously sung by Ildar Abdrazakov (Igor), Oksana Dyka (Yaroslavna), Anita Rachvelishvili (Konchakovna) and Sergey Semisher (Vladimir). The richness and exoticism of the score were a welcome change from the standard Italian-German repertory, especially in the seductive mezzo-tenor duet. Dramatically, though, you have to wonder why this is called “Prince Igor” when his wife, Yaroslavna, has the better role—she’s the Russian version of “Game of Thrones'” Catelyn Stark, betrayed by her usurper brother, Prince Galitsky (a terrific Mikhail Petrenko), yet trying in her husband’s absence to hold the kingdom together with her faithful boyars.

I thought some of the choices by director Dmitri Tcherniakov were odd. The poppy fields in rows for the Polovtsian scene were unnecessarily confining for the dancers who were forced to hurdle the flower hedges like track stars, and Igor’s hallucinations seemed too realistic (his “missing you” duet with Yaroslavna was staged in full light as she stood right next to him). And there was too much old-fashioned “Oh my God” head-holding and similar gestures by some of the singers. Nevertheless, “Prince Igor” is a wonderful change of pace, and one which the Met should be performing on a far more frequent basis.

Jonas. No further words necessary.
Jonas. No further words necessary.

The term “physique du rôle” could have been coined to describe Jonas Kaufmann as Massenet’s “Werther” in the Met’s new production–he absolutely embodies all aspects of the character in a manner not often seen on the opera stage. Unlike other singers, he shows us Werther’s social awkwardness in Act I, as a man far more comfortable extolling nature than interacting with people. His first scenes with Charlotte are magical in this production, as we see them dance at the ball to what will become a recurring theme in the opera, the motif that signals Werther’s love.

Nevertheless, Kaufmann had to resort to some odd choices to produce the sound the role demands. Werther is somewhat tricky—the role is lyrical at the beginning of the opera, yet it requires dramatic force when the character finally confesses his love for Charlotte. Kaufmann has a big voice—the man sings Wagner after all—so there was some reining in at various times in the performance I saw, and not a small amount of crooning on his part. When he finally let fly with an impassioned “Pourquoi me reveiller” I was relieved to hear that golden Jonas sound.

Sophie Koch’s vibrant mezzo brought out the best in Charlotte. There was a welcome warmth to her performance (I’ve seen more than one Charlotte who so tended toward ice you wonder why Werther would even bother), and she added no small amount of insight. At the beginning of Act II, when Charlotte and Albert, her new husband, enter, they sit a bit apart on a bench. While he marvels at his happiness by exclaiming “I can’t believe it’s been three months since we wed,” her stiff posture alone, even before she repeats that line, shows her quite opposite view of their marriage.

The production by Richard Eyre is traditional, which to me seems fitting for some of the most romantic music in the repertoire. Nevertheless a few directorial choices were questionable. With the exception of showing Werther and Charlotte at the ball, Eyre’s invented moments of illustration for the prelude and scene transitions ranged from unnecessary to ludicrous. We didn’t need to have the opera start with the death of Charlotte’s mother, and Charlotte’s struggling into her booties onstage before rushing out after the dispatch of those pistols was a mood-breaker, to put it mildly. On the other hand, the suicide is extraordinarily realistic—when Werther shot himself and the blood spattered on the opposite wall, I gasped and the woman sitting next to me jumped right off her seat. And for once, Werther and Charlotte’s final scene is properly staged. The man is dying of blood loss and Kaufmann acts it superbly, lying prone for the most part and only able to stand with Charlotte’s considerable assistance (In the prior Met staging Werther was on his feet so much you expected him to finally shake it all off and go out for a beer).

“Werther” will be shown as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series on March 15th. With Kaufmann and Koch, as well as two unusually vivid characterizations by Lisette Oropesa as Sophie and David Bizic as Albert, this is a performance that shouldn’t be missed.

 

Posted in Baseball, Brain Bits, Cats, Opera, Television

Brain Bits for an Endless Winter

As I write this the New York metropolitan area is gearing up for yet another wave of snow, sleet and freezing rain. How much of the above we’re going to be socked with this time is still up in the air (no pun intended). We only know that the weather forecasters have been predicting doom for the last five days. Well, my refrigerator is stocked, my car’s gas tank is full and my boots and snow shovel are once more at the ready. I saw a robin on my front lawn yesterday afternoon, and while I refrained from asking “You lost, buddy?,” I still took heart. Spring will arrive—sometime.

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No gown was ever better wrecked
No gown was ever better wrecked

“Downton Abbey” just completed its fourth season here. My opinion? Kind of meh.

I’m not saying the show was without its charms: I’ll be interested in Lady Mary’s doings until the cows (or perhaps I should say, the pigs) come home. I’ve always liked the character, even at her bitchiest, and she’s got the type of self-awareness that’s enormously refreshing—she cuts to the heart of things, no matter whose feelings may be hurt. Tom Branson is still fun to watch, as are Carson and Mrs. Hughes, and I’d like Paul Giamatti to make a return visit as Harold Levenson, Cora’s brother. But the show now seems stuffy and predictable, especially if you’re a fan of “Last Tango in Halifax,” whose characters in no way have consistency in their lexicon. At this point you’re assured of the following in every “Downton Abbey” episode: a cutting quip and a snark at Isobel Crawley by the Dowager Countess, a Lady Edith misfortune, a block-headed remark by the Earl, a blackmail attempt by Barrow and an ambiguously sinister shot of Bates. The pattern has yet to change.

Despite all this, I’ll continue to watch “Downton Abbey” until its end. I just wish it had a little more zest in its storytelling and a little more oxygen in its atmosphere.

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MetThat sound you hear is the rattling of sabres as management and labor gear up for contract talks at the Metropolitan Opera. Words are already being exchanged, what with General Manger Peter Gelb leading negotiations for the first time and Tino Gagliardi, head of the musicians’ union, vowing to seek oversight of the Met’s spending in order to prevent salary cuts and other givebacks.

There’s been a distressing pattern of musicians’ unions blinding themselves to significant changes in both the prevailing culture and the economy. This is no longer 1960, when arts programming was a regular feature on the handful of television channels in existence, Leonard Bernstein won Emmys for his “Young People’s Concerts” and most importantly, visual and musical arts were mandatory courses in public schools. Is it any wonder that audiences for classical music and opera have dwindled over the years, to the extent that box office receipts make up only one third of the Met’s income? Outreach programs are great, but nothing creates a lifelong interest in the arts like a thorough education such as my boomer generation received. Sadly, those times are gone.

I know very few people who weren’t impacted by the financial collapse of 2008 and its lingering aftermath. There’s a trickle-down effect on the arts after such disasters: over time contributions are curtailed if not eliminated, and patrons find themselves with less disposable income for ticket purchases. To put it bluntly, we’ve all had to suck it up during the last several years, and performers are not exempt from the new reality. If, as the Met claims, two-thirds of its expenses are labor costs, that’s the pool from which reductions should come first.

I would hate to see a strike or a lock-out at the Met. But the unions would better serve both their membership and the ticket-buying public by dealing in the real world.

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Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets
Gary Carter, N.Y. Mets

Once upon a time there was a future Hall of Fame catcher named Gary Carter. For five delirious years he was a New York Met, and a mainstay of that 1986 championship team. As a lifelong, diehard Mets fan, I loved watching him play.

Flash forward to a few days ago. I’ve been wanting to adopt another cat for several months, ever since poor Roger departed to the great litter box in the sky. I needed a mellow boy past kitten stage who could get along with Miss Teddi, a somewhat crotchety 16 year-old, and Gregory, a laid back 7 year-old built like a pro football linebacker.

Gary Carter, Cat
Gary Carter, Cat

Is there a better name for a polydactyl cat whose front paws resemble catcher’s mitts? I can’t claim credit for his name: it said “Gary Carter” on his cat cubby at the shelter. Under the circumstances I couldn’t not take him, so now Mr. Carter is comfortably ensconced in his new surroundings. This young man blended in immediately with the other feline residents, and is simply one terrific cat.

Now if I could just get him to wear a baseball cap……