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Arts Festival Review: The Songs of Kurt Weill

International Arts Festival Review: The Songs of Kurt Weill

Review by Lyndon Hood

The Songs of Kurt Weill
Plan 9 - Janet Roddick, David Donaldson and Steve Roche, with David Long, Chris O’Connor and Jeff Henderson
The Festival Club
12, 13 March

The 2008 International Arts Festival has already heard from the collaboration of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht in The Lindbergh Flight/The Flight Over The Ocean & The Seven Deadly Sins. Many, but not all, of chosen pieces for The Songs of Kurt Weill are from this collaboration - mostly, but not exclusively, songs for Brecht's stage musicals.

The performance here harks back to their original style - German music hall between the wars - rather than the smoother jazz-standard interpretations some of the songs are known for. Lots of oomp-pah in the rhythm section, jaunty bright-toned lead instruments that surge into blasts of noise where everyone tries to solo independently and a world-weary vocal line whose timing and intonation drifts against the backing with something verging on animosity.

That, at any rate, is how they played it to begin with. Front-and-centre was Janet Roddick's vocals, her tone the Brecht numbers something of a Dietrich-esque quaver brittle-sounding, emotional, yet firmly-projected. In fact the crashing emphasis she put on some significant words in the phrases of scene-setting 'Mack the Knife' seemed to catch the sound operator on the hop.

One was left with ideas the others were playing whatever intrument the found nearest to them, sometimes swapping around in the middle of a piece, which, for example, gave a huge range for them to build through in the course of 'Mack the Knife'. The music skill was obvious, in the number of instruments, the tone-perfect arrangements and way the tensions of off-beat and oddly-toned phrases hardly ever (perhaps once that I noticed) collapsed into actual disorder.

But an hour and a half of that would have been far, far too much for me. Fortunately, there was variation. The versatile ensemble (Plan 9's day job is in TV and movie sondtracks) suited the style to the piece - as with some later songs written for Broadway. Which, as someone familiar with Weill through Brecht it was a surprise to recognise - the likes of 'Semptember Song' (used as the theme tune to the TV series May to December).

The songs were often leavened by nod to other genres - a couple of solos (including a well-received appearance from Roddick's trombone) had backing that tended to folk-rock rhythms, that seemed to jar as the vocal line was slapped back over the top. Another novelty in almost every respect was a bawdy little tune sung a capella by the gentlemen, presumably in their own translation (I wouldn't think you'd find the term "the slag!" in any published version).

Roddick thoroughly engage with the audience as she performed, and brought to the vocals the characters and emotions of some very charactered and emotional music. Most memorably, she veered from wistfulness to anger to bitter, crushed desperation over the course of 'Surabaya Johnny', almost collapsing in to the piano for the final spoken "Take that damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat".

In some respects this theatricality was in place of between-song patter, which was entirely absent right up until Roddick introduced the band at the end of the show. It might have been nice - if only for reviewing purposes - to have an actual introduction to the songs. Weill's history spans continents and many of the songs are part of musicals, and have their place in plots. I can't help wondering if we might have benefited from some historical and theatrical context.

Over the course of 90 minutes they managed to fit most of the Weill standards, making for (thanks to Brecht's contribution) something of a litany of decadence, criminality and amorality. Standouts not already mentioned include 'Pirate Jenny' and 'The Soldiers Wife'. If there was a standard missing I'd probably nominate the 'Alabama song' ('Whiskey Bar') but the evening certainly didn't want for ditties about drunken nihilism.

Eventually they rolled back around to a counterpart to Mac the Knife, which tells of Macheath's impending doom. A nice way to round off the set, and there's a sense in which what followed was a pre-emptive encore, with the genre-bending becoming far more enthusiastic.

There was a rollocking R&B ballad version solo version of one song - this wasn't a jazz audience to be clapping at solos but the guitar on this one got a hearty round of applause. And they closed (after some quiet confirmation) with 'My Ship', Roddick freely playing out Weill's beautiful setting of Ira Gershwin's lyrics to an even freer accompaniment - all plucked and rattled harmonics from the strings and from the wind instruments hisses, microphone rattles and (let's be honest) extended farting noises. I couldn't catch any particular noise being made by the blowing into the back of the banjo, but they did that too. And then, over the course of the last verse the brought it back to a full accompaniment almost like the musical-hall we started with and on into alt rock, giving an overall effect that seemed to be exactly as advanced as the audience was ready for.

We wanted an encore, but they came back for another bow. Perhaps it was just that it was 9 and the Festival had to get us out to set up for La Vie.


The Songs of Kurt Weill CD was released this year.

The Songs of Kurt Weill on the Arts Festival website
Scoop Audio Interview - Songs of Kurt Weill's Janet Roddick (from Festival 2006)
Scoop Full Coverage: New Zealand International Arts Festival 2008

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