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New Century Chamber Orchestra has an incongruous encounter with Chanticleer

1930 photograph of the Comedia Hamonists: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommermann, Ari Leschnikoff
1930 photograph of the Comedia Hamonists: Robert Biberti, Erich Collin, Erwin Bootz, Roman Cycowski, Harry Frommermann, Ari Leschnikofffrom Wikipedia (fair use)

Last night in the Concert Hall of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) gave the first of two performances in San Francisco of the final program for their current season. The title of the program was Atlantic Crossings, intended to evoke a musical journey across the Atlantic from Europe to New York during the era between the two World Wars. NCCO shared the stage almost equally with the twelve-voice all-male choir Chanticleer. Since Chanticleer specializes in a cappella performance, this made for a somewhat peculiar combination.

The largest share of the Chanticleer selections drew upon the repertoire of the Comedian Harmonists, a group of five German men singing in close harmony with an accompanying pianist. Their style involved a decidedly unique take on American pop and jazz styles. They were very well received in the performances they gave between 1928 and 1934, eventually disbanding under Nazi pressure. Founder Harry Frommermann (a Tenor buffo), tenor Erich A. Collin, and baritone Roman Cycowski were all Jewish; and the group’s pianist, Erwin Bootz, had a Jewish wife. Part of the novelty of their style involved the imitation of jazz instrument sounds.

Chanticleer performed five Comedian Harmonists selections, ranging from the operatic world of Jacques Offenbach to the Broadway stage of Vincent Youmans. All arrangements were by Frommermann with the exception of one (Offenbach’s barcarolle from The Tales of Hoffmann) by Bootz. Through the recordings that the Comedian Harmonists made, one can appreciate their German take on the early stages of American jazz. However, the high spirits of their performances only faintly masked the sharp edges that were so evident to Christopher Isherwood in his chronicling of Berlin cabaret life. Chanticleer, on the other hand, was smoothly polished, offering little sense of the brash qualities of American jazz bands or the “subtext sleaze” of Berlin.

There was also a footnote of sorts to these selections in the form of a performance of Kurt Weill’s “Mack the Knife,” presented by both Chanticleer and NCCO in an arrangement by Clarice Assad. Assad has provided many imaginative additions to the NCCO repertoire through both original compositions and arrangements. Her approach to Weill, however, was more than a little peculiar, particularly with a prolonged introduction that seemed to have more to do with John Adams’ “Shaker Loops” than with anything Weill ever wrote. This climaxed in an appearance in the aisle of the audience area of Iris Stone (normally in the first violin section) done up in the shabbily sinister attire of the Street Singer in The Threepenny Opera, singing Weill’s song with Bertolt Brecht’s original German lyrics. Chanticleer then took over with the English version used in the thoroughly dreadful recording made by Bobby Darin (honoring just about every one of Darin’s banal riffs).

Assad also provided arrangements of four song’s from George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and four selections from Duke Ellington’s repertoire, with composition shared by Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. These were less contrived than the Weill arrangement. However, they also tended to reinforce that smoothly polished Chanticleer rhetoric that seldom revealed any distinguishing features of interest. The high point came when NCCO Music Director Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg revisited one of her favorite encores, based on the arrangement Jascha Heifetz had made of “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” for his own recital encores.

Left to their own devices, NCCO offered far more satisfying selections, particularly in their energetic return to Béla Bartók’s set of six Romanian dances. The Allegro Giusto movement from Miklós Rózsa’s Opus 17 concerto for string orchestra provided a fascinating contrast to Bartók’s approach to Eastern European idioms; and it was a pleasure to listen to Rózsa in a concert setting, rather than as a background to a Hollywood film. The decision to open the evening with Fritz Kreisler’s “Midnight Bells” did much to honor the spirit of the time being captured by the program; but the NCCO execution was a bit more ragged than would suit the thick voicing of Kreisler’s harmonies.

The result was a program that probably looked good on paper when it was first conceived but never really caught the spirit that it was trying to evoke.