German cabaret set out to entertain in ways that ennobled both concert song and tingel-tangel airs. Equally serious and provocative, cabaret is “not merely read between the four walls of a lonely room but can be sung by a public ready for lusty entertainment.” In Descent—a cabaret of high standards, subversive culture, music, laughter, intimacy, body movement, and drama between stage and audience—is specially co-curated by conductor Edwin Outwater and vocalist Meow Meow for the sentimental and satirical.
The evening begins pleasantly. Meow Meow sings Schubert’s Die Forelle (The Trout) and we imagine the trout’s journey down a lovely, burbling brook. Next, a quintet of San Francisco Symphony musicians dive into an instrumental take of the song, animating a charming pastoral scene of warm and swirling waters. The theme and variations climax with a smile-inducing “leap” to the end…
We plunge underwater. Weill’s “Ballad of the Drowned Girl” was written in 1929, when he and lyricist Bertolt Brecht could be found prowling about Berlin’s jazz-age bohemia. This potent ballad was inspired by the murder of Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, whose end was…not so pleasant—she was first clubbed, then shot, then hurled into the Landwehr Canal. Yet this is no lament. Brecht’s text instead dotingly details the slow decomposition of the body as it is carried downstream and nibbled away bit by bit by small fish. The pleasantries are over.
Now for some wicked good fun. Some of Weill/Brecht’s most indelible creations are featured in this second act, and not surprisingly, the duo’s naughty numbers are real showpieces. The classic cabaret-tinged “Surabaya, Johnny” from the musical Happy End is a torch song of consuming desire. A woman sings her heart out to a magnetic but callous player of a man who has wronged her. She voices her deep pain yet we gather she also feels an unmistakable sexual craving. He responds to one or the other—or both.
In the 1920s, Hindemith would have been the ne plus ultra of avant-garde craziness. Kammermusik No. 1 is a child of the ironic wit and frenzy of the bitter years between the two world wars. It has an edge, a dissonance, and a frantic power. Its finale, entitled "1921," has a sardonic humor concealing the despair of the year it depicts; a popular tune of that year, Fuchstanz (Fox‑dance), brings this wild work to a close.
“Pirate Jenny,” Weill/Brecht’s interpretation of a classic operatic revenge aria, hails from The Threepenny Opera. A scrubwoman named Jenny, with the help of pirates who arrive on a ship with eight sails and fifty guns, destroys a town in which she has been poorly treated. The piece lurches along through jolting changes of tempo and melody, and the haunting effect of Jenny stepping out of character to retaliate is terrifying. We fall prey to elements of epic theater that are masterfully enacted in this cabaret: non-naturalistic acting, montage-like drama, and outsider commentary. This short song sees Jenny sailing away not in triumph but in emotional turmoil.
The evening that began with pleasantries concludes in pleasure. Czech-German-Jewish Erwin Schulhoff was a member of the vanguard of creatives who greatly experimented with musical voice. For a while he led a dual existence as a composer, simultaneously writing works in the styles of the atonal Expressionists of Vienna and the eclectic Dadaists of Berlin. Part of a group of works that demonstrate Schulhoff’s ultimate shift into musical Dadaism, Sonata Erotica for solo female vocalist is a provocative musical imitation of the sighs and cries heard during a woman’s orgasm. This is a steamy work that elevates raw music to the concert stage.
Ligeti’s opera Le Grand Macabre, based on a play by the Belgian dramatist Michel de Ghelderode, is concerned with death and survival. Composing Le Grand Macabre gave the composer the opportunity to try new things, and this musical foray into a decrepit world was a successfully sinister effort. This tale references stylized works of the past to depict the estrangement and subversion of an ignoble, chaotic setting—but ends with a glimpse of things new and progressive just beyond.
The cabaret closes with The Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin) by Laurie Anderson:
…She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel
backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm
Jeanette Yu is Director of Publications at the San Francisco Symphony.