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Curt, vile, and polished

In his San Francisco Chronicle review of this week’s San Francisco Symphony concert, Joshua Kosman described Kurt Weill’s second symphony as “a cruelly telling contrast” to Rufus Wainwright’s orchestrations for his settings of five sonnets by William Shakespeare. I particularly appreciated his describing Weill’s score as one “whose boisterous energy and dark harmonic daring channel the strains of jazz and cabaret music into a truly symphonic context.” Last night ten vocal students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music plumbed the depths of those strains as source material for a Musical Theatre Workshop entitled Capital Vices: A Voyage through Sin, presenting a cabaret of eighteen Weill songs with texts from nine lyricists.

Kosman’s quote is particularly applicable to one of those lyricists. As I observed in my own account of the Symphony concert, Weill composed his second symphony after several years of fruitful collaborations with Bertolt Brecht; and the best known of those collaborations, The Threepenny Opera, was represented by five songs on the program. These were not sung in Brecht’s original German but in Michael Feingold’s translation for a 1989 Broadway production. Feingold’s texts never quite captured Brecht’s confrontational agitprop, and his rhymes never rose to the standards of Marc Blitzstein’s far less confrontational translation for the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in Greenwich Village. However, under the stage direction of Michael Mohammed, the Conservatory students delivered all of the raw qualities of Brecht’s spirit without ever compromising the polished clarity and phrase-shaping of their vocal training. This was, to say the least, a refreshing jolt of a change from Wainwright’s mannered approach to his delivery of Shakespeare.

That spirit took a contemporary twist in Felix Gasbarra’s text for “Die Muschel von Margate.” This also predates Weill’s second symphony and was part of the incidental music that Weill provided for the play Konjunktur by Leo Lania in 1928, before his major collaborations with Brecht. The contemporary spirit of the song is best captured by the synopsis provided by the Kurt Weill Foundation for Music:

The song tells the story of a seaside village destroyed by the oil industry. First, oil is discovered and the beautiful waterfront is ruined by oil tanks. Then the local economy is taken over by oil cartels and workers are forced to work on the oil rigs. Finally, as the thirst for oil grows, and more and more rigs are erected, burning oil sets the world on fire.

"Die Muschel von Margate" was part of Konjunktur (Oil Boom), a play by Leo Lania with incidental music by Kurt Weill, in which three oil companies fight over the rights to oil production in a primitive Balkan country, and in the process exploit the people and destroy the environment. It premiered in Berlin in 1928, directed by Erwin Piscator.

Mohammed staged the final chorus of this song as a protest march with signs bearing the logos of major oil corporations. The logo at center stage was (of course) BP.


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