Night of Weill music falls flat, noisily


On paper the idea of an entire evening of Kurt Weill as a symphonic pops concert must have seemed like a terrific idea to the Baltimore Symphony management. Weill was, after all, a first-rate symphonic composer who transformed himself into a superb composer for the theater. Moreover, his music is challenging enough -- the young Otto Klemperer counted himself among Weill's champions -- so the interests of the BSO and its music director, David Zinman, figured to be engaged. It was only two years ago, Zinman and the BSO and several soloists presented a memorable evening of Leonard Bernstein's theater music.

But the best intentions frequently pave the way to boredom -- and to evenings such as "Kurt Weill: Bilbao to Broadway," last night's tribute to Weill in Meyerhoff Hall.

Why did an evening of Bernstein work and not one of Weill? Part of the answer is that the American was the better composer. As good as "Speak Low" (from "One Touch of Venus") and "Mack the Knife" (from "The Threepenny Opera") are, Weill's songs don't compare in either quality or plenitude with the best of Bernstein. Then there is the fact that most of Bernstein's best songs are etched in our subconscious; with the exception of the aforementioned numbers and a few others, Weill's are caviar to the general -- an acquired taste familar mostly to aficionados. Presenting the audience with nearly 40 songs -- even when sung as stylishly as some were by soloists Judy Kaye, Joyce Castle, Peter Kazaras, Buddy Crutchfield, Michale Scarborough and Reginal Pindell -- turns the mind to jelly.

Making matters worse was the amplification of the music. Weill's theater music owes a great deal to the world of the cabaret. His are songs that are best heard in intimate, purely acoustic circumstances. Last night in Meyerhoff, however, the orchestra was turned up and the singers were turned up. This had the effect of turning off the listener. It was often next to impossible to make out individual words and in the case of a patter song such as "Tchaikovsky and Other Russians" (from "Lady in the Dark"), the delivery of which 50 years ago made a young Danny Kaye instantly famous, syllables slammed into one another like freight cars in a train wreck. And it would have been nice if the program notes had said which of Weill's lyricists -- whether Ira Gershwin, Bert Brecht or Alan Jay Lerner -- worked on which songs.

This program of theater songs is supposed to tour other orchestras with the soloists who are currently appearing with the BSO. It's a good idea that needs serious re-thinking.

The program will be repeated tonight and Saturday at 8:15.

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