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Tenor James Benjamin Rodgers surveys the music of Kurt Weill in a salon setting

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Yesterday afternoon Merola alumnus tenor James Benjamin Rodgers returned to San Francisco to give a launch recital for his new CD, Exiled: The Evolution of Kurt Weill. The venue was the home of Peter Winkelstein, where Rodgers lived as a guest during his Merola summer in 2008; but this house concert was open to the general public on the very limited basis of available seating in the living room. Rodgers performed all of the selections on his recording, as well as ten more, all couched in an informative biographical narrative.

The result was a rather long affair, longer than one tends to associate with “salon” settings. In fairness, however, the subject matter is more imposing than many would think. Stephen Hinton’s Weill’s Music Theater: Stages of Reform runs to almost 600 pages. In preparing his program, Rodgers had to worry more about exclusion than inclusion; and, writing from the point of view of one who read (and then wrote about) Hinton’s book, I have to say that he made some excellent decisions in lopping off large bleeding chunks of the full Weill biography.

On the other hand I am not sure that exile was really the theme of the narrative that Rodgers developed to serve as a spinal cord for the songs he selected to perform. Indeed, during the second half of the program, which was devoted entirely to Weill’s activities in the United States, Rodgers reminded his audience that, once he achieved citizenship, Weill insisted on calling himself an American. He may have been born in Germany; but the theme of the first half of Rodgers’ program was about Germany’s rejection of Weill, which, thanks of Nazi expansionism reached all the way to Paris, his first move in avoiding Adolf Hitler’s clutches.

I would therefore suggest that the theme behind the evolution of Weill’s work as a composer has less to do with exile and more to do with alienation. That alienation, in turn, derives from societies whose values have been corrupted; and the source of corruption tends to be an ideology in which market value is the only value that matters. Thus, the first song on the album (and the second on yesterday afternoon’s program) is all about the principle that one can only eat if one has money to pay for the bread. Of the two most nostalgic songs on the first half (both on the CD), one involves the private thoughts of a prostitute (Marie Galante) dreaming of escape from her life of “economic necessity” and the other is a dream of a utopian land that does not exist. (Youkali)

Even in the United States Weill ended up working on shows involving different aspects of “otherness.” These included a patient in psychiatric analysis (Lady in the Dark), the tragedy of apartheid (Lost in the Stars), and even the escapism of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (Weill’s unfinished project with Maxwell Anderson, A Raft on the River). Even when Weill is at his most lyric, one can still discern the ghosts of alienation in the background.

As a performer Rodgers was clearly comfortable with the demands of the works he had selected. There was a clarity to his diction that obviated the need to include any of the English-language song texts in the program book. His dynamics were occasionally a bit too strong for yesterday’s intimate setting, but those levels tended to underscore the irony that frequently shaded Weill’s musical colors of alienation.

Equally impressive, however, was the work of his accompanist (and wife) Jillian Zack, whose “background music” for Rodgers’ narrations broadened the musical scope beyond the songs on the program, including references to The Threepenny Opera, Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny, and “The Seven Deadly Sins.” This set a valuable context for the selected songs. Weill was actually a very economical composer. Much of his music arises from a vocabulary of motivic and structural tropes that date back to some of his earliest work. The context that Zack set with her interstitial material provided some informative nuts and bolts for those interested in a more detailed account of Weill’s craft.

The result was thus a highly stimulating “text and context” account of Weill’s music in which both performers contributed significantly to establishing both text and context.

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