Sunday, January 26, 2020

Theo Bleckmann Blunts Brecht’s Sharp Edges

Theo Bleckmann (photograph by Lynn Harty, courtesy of Jensen Artists)

Last night in Herbst Theatre San Francisco Performances presented the third of the four concerts in its PIVOT series. The title of the program was Berlin—Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile. This was the title of vocalist Theo Bleckmann’s 2008 album, devoted primarily to cabaret songs. Last night Bleckmann was accompanied at the piano by Dan Tepfer, along with the members of the Telegraph Quartet. For last night’s performance Joseph Maile took the first violin chair with Eric Chin on second, Pei-Ling Lin on viola, and Jeremiah Shaw on cello. The instrumental arrangements were by Fumio Yasuda, and almost all of the selections were based on the poems of Bertolt Brecht. Most of the settings were by Hanns Eisler, and a few of the more familiar selections were from Kurt Weill.

I am afraid I have to take issue with the program note, which stated that Bleckmann “breathes new life into classic German songs.” The Weill selections were familiar enough to count for a vernacular interpretation of “classic;” but I am not sure I have previously listened to a concert performance of any composition by Eisler in this country. This is unfortunate. Brecht wrote his poems with a heavy, and frequently merciless, hand; and his collaborations with Weill, powerful as they are, do not really count as representative of his full corpus. The many songs that Eisler wrote to set Brecht’s words account for a far broader and more representative account of the author.

Sadly, Bleckmann’s interpretations tended to smooth over the many rough edges one encounters in Eisler’s settings and the source texts themselves. This results in a kinder and gentler account of material conceived to be about as far from kind and gentle as one can get. Furthermore, between his vocal qualities and his microphone work, Bleckmann seldom endowed the words he was singing with sufficient clarity; and his casual approach to pitch seemed to be fundamental to his rhetorical stance.

In other words Bleckmann took a stylistic stance that did little justice to the repertoire he had prepared. This is one of those cases in which the obvious pun cuts right to the bone: Just about anything Brecht wrote must be delivered with qualities that are primarily curt and vile. Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya, whose sense of pitch was basically oriented around Sprechgesang, was an expert in realizing those qualities. To a great extent Joel Grey captured the spirit of those qualities in his performances of Cabaret on both stage and screen. However, it is worth recalling that Lenya was part of the original Broadway cast of Cabaret, and it is easy to imagine that Grey learned a thing or two from her.

Beyond the vocalizing there was, fortunately, much to be enjoyed in the instrumentation. Tepfer provided Bleckmann with solid accompaniment and even seemed to venture into an imaginative improvisation or two. Similarly, the quartet arrangement came across with a better sense of the cabaret spirit than Bleckmann ever evoked. I found it interesting that the more memorable solos were allocated to the viola and the cello. Both Lin and Shaw provided just the right darkness to set context for Brecht’s poetry.

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