The songs that sprung from the Berlin cabaret (Kabarett) scene beginning in 1901 through the Weimar era packed a powerful punch in condensed form. The scene attracted literary and music composition giants such as Hanns Eisler, Kurt Weill, and Bertolt Brecht. Their political satire and criticism was thinly veiled, at most, in their songs. Grammy-nominated singer Theo Bleckmann and celebrated composer and pianist Rob Schwimmer teamed up on Thursday night for the Strathmore Music in the Mansion series to perform music from Songs of Love and War, Peace and Exile arranged by Fumio Yasuda. In keen juxtaposition, they paired the Kabarett songs with another Yasuda arrangement written for Bleckmann’s voice, Las Vegas Rhapsody, featuring songs that highlight the golden age of the crooner. Bleckmann and Schwimmer’s “Berlin~Las Vegas” journey isn’t chronological. It soothes with the lush sounds of one era only to jump through time and give a quick bite in the next song.
Both the Berlin Kabarett scene and the glamorous heyday of Las Vegas were steeped in illusion. Individuals struggled for distraction from their history and political conflicts. The music of each time period satisfied a need for escape, beauty, and a fugitive sense of pleasure or luxury. In making this observation of two worlds, it is appropriate then that Bleckmann and Schwimmer mixed the songs from both periods in a non-linear fashion. Bleckmann also pointed out in one of his short introductions that many of the songs still carry important meaning for contemporary audiences with, as he put it, “Russia being a little odd.” The sentiment was certainly not lost of the Strathmore audience many of whom who obviously did not need translations for the German songs.
Bleckmann, who moved to the States 25 years ago, has a voice like the perfect martini: clean, clear, and intoxicating. He was effortless throughout the evening with a deep understanding of the abilities of his instrument. One of the signature elements of his voice is the ability to change vocal colors quickly and intensely which he demonstrated over the course of the first half including: “Der Bilbao-Song”, “An den Kleinen Radioapparat”, and a stirring performance of Weill’s “Moon of Alabama” from the Songspiel Mahagonny. Being German has its advantages, especially when singing in the language. He stays true to the vocal line by singing clearly on the vowel while giving each consonant the exact amount of needed attention. Bleckmann threw the audience a bit of a curve ball with a cover of Kraftwerk’s 1978 “Das Modell” but elicited some laughs with his robot dance moves before returning to his smooth style with “Falling in Love Again” made famous by Marlene Dietrich.
While Rob Schwimmer seems overall more aggressive at the keyboard than Bleckmann is with the voice, he does exhibit an adroit clarity in this repertoire. Schwimmer’s dexterity on the jazzy tune, “Button Up Your Overcoat” was impressively slick. He also joined in on the singing in that tune – harmonizing with Bleckmann to the delight of the room. Later in the program, Schwimmer expertly took his time building the dramatic opening to Yasuda’s arrangement of “Chim Chim Cheree” which was a much darker look at “Hollywood’s take on the working class” than the one we remember from the movie.
The recital flowed so gracefully that I was almost surprised it was over – feeling as though we had just gotten started. Closing with Brecht and Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”, Bleckmann and Schwimmer gave us one final example of what was so special about their performance all night — the juxtaposition of lush vocal colors with a quick bite from the text. Each iteration of the line, “take that stupid pipe out of your mouth, you dog” (in both English and German) had a subtly different shade of pain. Finally, as an encore and special thank you to Zona Hostetler of the Randy Hostetler Living Room Music Fund, Bleckmann and Schwimmer performed the Las Vegas perennial favorite “I’ve Got the World on a String.”