Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Berlin, Mon Amour

February 19, 2010

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester

There’s no irony quite like German irony. It’s that special blend that can bewilder Americans in particular over what appears to be a highly contrasting mix of admiration and a far more arch critique of the subject at hand. Take Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester who returned to Southern California this week including a performance at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Thursday. It was classic Raabe. The dapper and droll bandleader dressed in formal evening wear croons to popular songs of the 1920s and 30s with his similarly period orchestra. The songs couldn’t be more familiar including “Happy Days Are Here Again,” “Dream A Little Dream” and “Falling In Love Again.” They are performed in jazzed up arrangements that are still surprisingly unadorned and simple by contemporary standards. Raabe accompanies everything in a lithesome falsetto. In between numbers his stilted delivery of witty understatements acts as a bridge between songs from Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and even Kurt Weil. Many of the songs are performed in German emphasizing the cultural perspective of the ensemble. There are flashes of humor and even slapstick in the set which involves 12 other band members and it is all splendidly done.

But the point of it all remains tantalizingly elusive. Max Raabe, a character played by the groups leader, is clearly musical and highly educated about the musical period their songs come from. Yet at the same time, the detailed reproduction of costumes and physical gestures and mannerisms implies a larger project. There is more going on here than nostalgia. Yet at the same time, Raabe and his players never break the spell more than to give a glance that tells you there's something more. There is a subtle knowing wink in these songs of romantic love from a culture markedly different from the one we now know. Granted this is a feeling that audiences can decide to love or hate. But it is unquestionably unique and it might just be brilliant as well. I love Max Raabe and his orchestra precisely because there is something decidedly unwholesome about something that on the surface seems just the opposite. The show at UCLA, the third the band has done here, was a highlight of the UCLA performing arts season and it was sad to see it end.


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