This Thursday, the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum, in collaboration with the Atlanta Opera, will present a program of music by Kurt Weill as part of the Molly Blank Concert Series at the Breman Museum. Gerald Steichen, music director of Ballet West in Salt Lake City and principal pops conductor of the Utah Symphony, will serve as pianist and host, joined in the performance by soprano Anya Matanovič, mezzo-soprano Phyllis Pancella and bass-baritone Craig Colclough. A reception will follow the performance.
Today, Weill has achieved a secure place among the pantheon of 20th-century modernist composers, but for much of his life, and for some years after, he was essentially known as a composer of hit songs, drawn from his operas and scores for musical theater. Weill’s most famous song, “Mack the Knife,” comes from his best-known theatrical work, The Threepenny Opera (1928), in collaboration with Bertolt Brecht.
It was, however, the song’s popularizations by Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and Bobby Darin, in contexts radically different from its origins, which brought it to the attention of a broader American public.
The same was true of another of his early songs. In 1966, the Doors released a recording of “Alabama Song” from the Weill-Brecht opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, although, as sung by frontman Jim Morrison, a few words were changed and the final verse omitted. What most rock audiences didn’t realize at the time was they were raving over a song that had also been all the rage with audiences in Berlin in 1930, as part of an opera — before the Nazis took control of Germany.
It was with the ascent of the Nazi Party that the climate changed dramatically for Weill and his music, prompting his flight from Germany in 1933. Weill and his wife, singer Lotte Lenya, ultimately arrived in New York City in September 1935.
Born on March 2, 1900, in the Jewish quarter of Dessau, Germany, Kurt Julian Weill was raised in a religious Jewish family, the third of four children. His father Albert was a cantor. That the Nazis deplored Weill was rooted first in his Jewishness, of course, but their objections were artistic as well. His early concert works possessed a somewhat caustic edge and the operas — with their mix of modernist, cabaret and jazz sentiments and politically left-leaning librettos — pressed every red-button aspect that the Nazis considered “decadent.”
Once he settled in New York, he wrote works for Broadway that both helped shape the emerging idioms of American musical theater, but also from which Weill assimilated an expanded musical vocabulary into his own composing.
This concert at the Breman intends to explore significant selections from Weill’s vocal music, with an ear for the composer’s belief that his should go beyond entertainment to serve a greater social purpose. They will mostly be drawn from theatrical works such as The Threepenny Opera and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (lyrics and libretto by Bertolt Brecht) from his German populist opera era, to his American musicals such as One Touch of Venus (lyrics by Ogden Nash), Street Scene (lyrics by Langston Hughes) and Lost in the Stars (book and lyrics by Maxwell Anderson).
Of special note with respect to Jewish history are two songs from an initially successful but now lesser-known work, “The Eternal Road,” Weill’s extensive, four-act opera-oratorio from 1937, which draws parallel dramatic threads from ancient history of the Jewish people with warnings to the public about Hitler’s persecution of Jews in Germany.
The concert will also examine the impact of Lotte Lenya upon Weill’s songs. Lenya’s own artistry as a vocalist makes for a rather distinctive barometer of performance practice for Weill’s songs, which helps in understanding his earlier songs’ peculiar, idiomatic place in 20th-century vocal repertoire.
In addition to this concert at the Bremen, those who would like to learn more about Kurt Weill and Lotte Lenya should check out Ronald Sanders’ groundbreaking 1980 biography, The Days Grow Short: The Life and Music of Kurt Weill, and the website of the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music.