Songs of Kurt Weill

Pacific Blue Festival Club, Wellington

12/03/2008 - 13/03/2008

New Zealand International Arts Festival

Production Details

Back by popular demand, brilliant musicians Janet Roddick, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, David Long, Chris O’Connor and Jeff Henderson return to the Club with more songs from Kurt Weill. Building on their previous success, they have produced a bigger and better pastiche of decadent Berlin and edgy musical theatre.

Venue: Pacific Blue Festival Club

12 Mar 7:30pm (Wed)
13 Mar 7:30pm (Thu)

(excl. service fees)
GA $45.00

Duration: 90 mins

Janet Roddick, David Donaldson, Steve Roche, David Long, Chris O'Connor and Jeff Henderson

1hr 30 mins

More pioneer rocker than old German jazz dude

Review by Rosel Labone 17th Mar 2008

Last week the Pacific Blue Festival Club allowed us to experience Kurt Weill as we never have before.

This innovative Arts Festival project by Wellington institution Plan 9 is not so much an extreme makeover as a complete reinvention of both the known and not so well known music of 20th Century composer Kurt Weill. This formidable clan of expert technicians have taken apart Weill’s music and rebuilt it, piece by piece by piece.

It’s a fine effort which serves to illustrate the capacity that Weill still has to move, entertain, and enlighten us.

Weill was an original, a man both out of his time and inextricably linked to it. His music sits between roots Americana and the Germanic tradition, making for a unique experience. With the composer offering a range of diverse stylistic options to choose from, in this show it is the element of risk that takes precedence.

The verdict? Weill was more pioneer rocker than old German jazz dude. That’s in keeping with the legacy the composer himself would have wanted to leave. His music is messy. It’s rough. It’s an electric volt to the senses.

Janet Roddick turned up the volume on Weill from the first number, the well-loved ‘Mack the Knife’, and set the tone for the evening. The small band of players made a big noise with saxophone, clarinet, drums, banjo, double bass and electric guitar. ‘Mack the Knife’ has a chameleon quality which transcends time and place, and means that everyone from Louis Armstrong to Lotte Lenya has had a go at putting their own stamp on it.

The band each played an integral part in the creation of the music and did a good job filling in as a veritable orchestra – so much so that opening numbers offered some concern of the level of sound overpowering the small venue.

Janet Roddick makes an unorthodox Weill interpreter. Vocally, the fashion for Weill tends to move in cycles – and usually the interpreters treat us to either a healthy dose of Teresa Stratas-esque vibrato or clipped character singing à la Ute Lemper. Janet Roddick was somewhere in the middle. Stepping on stage looking like a Pulp Fiction era Uma Thurman, in both ‘Mack the Knife’ and ‘Bilbao Song’ Roddick’s powerhouse vocals were a sledgehammer to the senses.

It therefore came as something of a relief when she displayed her vocal range and effective use of dynamic contrast in the ‘Ballad of Pirate Jenny’ from Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Here Roddick demonstrated a rare gift for creating atmospheric suspense and tension in a performance that captivated the audience.

After a few Booze, Broads and Brawls style cabaret numbers we were offered a nice shift of pace with the crooner’s classic, ‘Speak Low.’ In this wonderful arrangement each performer demonstrated their own individually excellent musicianship and versatility, with Roddick accompanying herself on the piano and the other band members playing their role of substitute orchestra to the hilt: the banjo became a violin with the use of a bow; the double bass at times filled in for the whole string section; and Weill’s ominous rhythmic undercurrents were given free reign with the primal force of drums. The aim of the musicians seemed to be to make the message of the music clear and above all relevant to a modern audience.

A further potential communication barrier was removed with the translation of the songs into English. Sometimes (in ‘The Ballad of Pirate Jenny’ or ‘Mack the Knife’) this meant Brecht’s black, often brutally comic diatribes against society lost something in translation. Other times it worked excellently, as in ‘The Sailor’s Song’. The band relished the opportunities the military-esque tango rhythm of the music offered. Roddick presented some refined singing, expressive yet composed.

By this point in the programme all the performers were completely in the groove of the music and it was a joy to watch the process of the instruments transforming into an extension of their players. We were treated to a trombone solo by Roddick, and long improvised jam sessions.

The evening built to a climax of rock star proportions with the performance of ‘Soldier’s Wife’, which Plan 9 imbued with brooding punk-rock passion and a dramatic intensity that would have made Meatloaf blush. The honky-tonk piano riffs and frenetic saxophone evoked the spirit of the White Stripes and showed how Weill provided the blueprint for a future generation of popular musicians.

There’s no doubt about it, Udo Lindenberg was right: Weill was a rocker. Plan 9’s bracket of German-era Weill left us in no doubt of that. But there were other important elements found in Weill’s mature style too – as he developed, so did his music, and the musical and emotional expansion of his so-called "American period" should not be discounted.

A ‘Lost in the stars’-era Weill may appear to need "dirtying up," yet a quick look beneath the surface – to the lyrics – reveals hidden depths. These lyrics alone contain enough acidity to cut through any treacle with no need for overstatement. 

There is a danger that by over-emphasizing Weill’s punishing rhythmic didacticism or by stripping his music down to its minimal skeleton that some songs lose the other qualities they need for dramatic contrast. Noticeably absent, for example, was the bittersweet yearning that made ‘My Ship’ and ‘September Song’ such great pocket masterpieces.

‘Stars’ was treated to a virtual re-write, taken from major key to minor, whereas ‘Ship’ (complete with rather indulgent instrumental breaks) was so muted as to be virtually inaudible. These songs are a fundamental part of Weill’s stylistic progress, and it is a shame to lose their basic qualities. The soft edges don’t need sharpening, because even in Weill’s most romantic moments, there is always something tragically off-centre, as if the composer still has one foot in the old world. Once Weill was kicked out of Germany, he badly wanted to disown every element of Germanic culture and to assimilate completely into the musical landscape of modern America; yet he never fully achieved this. Perhaps he had the best of both worlds, for it is this very quality that accounts in large part for his music’s potency.

Whoever said there was only one way to hear Weill? Not Plan 9, that’s certain. Mostly, theirs is a brave exploration of Weill’s musical universe. It’s nearly all experimental, and it doesn’t all work; yet it does remain true to the knife-edge element of danger always present in Weill’s music.

Weill is hugely adaptable, and he can take the weight. His music is like a faithful old dog: you can teach it some new tricks, and if you stay true to it, it will never let you down.


stephen gallagher March 18th, 2008

....only the ones with the great beards

Aaron Alexander March 17th, 2008

Gallagher, I bet you say that to all the experimental ensembles. :-P

stephen gallagher March 17th, 2008

Plan 9. I love you. You are all f**kin' brilliant.

Bruce Morley March 17th, 2008

PLAN 9 : Songs of Kurt Weill (cd album) Playing live, with arranger/ singer/ trombonist/ pianist Janet Roddick occupying a role that is more first-among-equals than featured artist, Plan 9 have a tremendous emotional impact. This studio album, with Roddick's voice more prominent and the band mixed back a little, is more like voice-with-accompaniment. Intentional or not, this serves Weill's haunting songs quite well. Roddick's voice is is crystal clear, and her persona more one of purity and lost innocence than the faux world-weariness adopted by some latter-day Lotte Lenyas. Plan 9 are all veterans of the Wellington improv scene, capable of stepping up and stealing the show - which they do, both live and here (check the multi-string intro and Roddick’s trombone on "Ballad of the Soldier's Wife", and Jeff Henderson's clarinet on "Surabaya Johnny"). Like the stage show, where the songs are allowed to tell the story with almost no theatrical artifice, this album is a fine delineation of the Kurt Weill ouevre (though traditionalists may have trouble with the fiery "Lost in the Stars", where anger is substituted for the usual wistfulness). Buy it, and then let Plan 9 tear your heart out with the same songs live. Braille Records, distributed by Ode Records. BRUCE MORLEY (New Zealand Musician magazine February/March 2008)

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