The Saginaw Bay Orchestra celebrated the centenary of the birth of composer Kurt Weill Saturday night at the Temple Theater. This performance was another in a long list of innovative and colorful musical theater programs (which have in the past included fully staged operas) that have become a hallmark of conductor Leo Najar's tenure at the orchestra.
In tribute to the musical legacy of German born composer Kurt Weill, Najar devised three different tableaux for three concert versions of stage works. The order of the pieces on the program was determined by the order in which they were composed, earliest to latest. In addition to giving the audience a glimpse into the evolution of the composer's style, it also placed as the middle work the most well known of the three, and ended with the largest and perhaps most interesting of the group.
The first work was Weill's "Mahagonny Songspiel," a fanciful and dark vision of an imaginary city (rather like an expressionist Brigadoon as painted by Edvard Munch!) set somewhere in a mythical land called America. Though there is ever reason to believe that musically the performance was on target, it was beset by technical problems from the beginning. Sound system noises whistled, crackled, and then failed altogether, and the six singers on stage were woefully overpowered by the instrumental ensemble in the orchestra pit. The singers were exposed on the lip of the stage, with nothing but their own vocal power to project out into the high-ceilinged hall, and with a velvet curtain behind them that seemed to do nothing but dampen their best efforts. The brass-heavy band was situated in the pit, which acted like a megaphone to broadcast their playing most effectively. The voices of the two female singers, Silke Wallstein and Diane Penning, were amplified, but the four male singers were not. The results were mixed in every way, as the women had to fight the electronic feedback and the men's voices got lost often and completely.
The next work, composed about the time of the building of the Temple Theater, was "Little Threepenny Music," Weill's suite for winds, piano and percussion of music from his immensely popular "Threepenny Opera." The centerpiece of this suite is, of course, the whimsical instrumental setting of the moritat song of Mackie Messer ("Mack the Knife"), which has entered the culture as an icon itself. For this work, Najar brought the pit musicians up to the stage, opened the velvet curtain, and had them play against a period-piece backdrop from the Temple Theater's early history.
As smooth and accessible as this suite is, it is replete with tricky rhythms and difficult entrances, which gave the ensemble a few problems throughout. More than one pair of lips could be seen on stage counting out the measures to the next syncopated entrance. On the whole, though, it was a delightful performance, with sparkling phrasings and assertive codas. At one point in the Tango, Najar's conducting mien looked almost choreographed, and the ensemble responded in kind. Of particular note was the mysteriously lamenting soul of the finale, and the pathos of Polly's song, a tragic lament of operatic proportions made so by its understatement and beauty. Flute, clarinet, and saxophone solos were also highlights.
After intermission came a concert version of Weill's full-length ballet-with-songs "The Seven Deadly Sins," which featured Silke Wallstein once again, this time as the central character Anna (as well as her alter-ego, Anna II). Though reviving the role originated by the legendary Lotte Lenya, Wallstein didn't adopt her predecessor's style (described when she sang "Mahagonny" as "in a hoarse voice with lascivious inflections"), but ruled the tableau with a manner that was studied, aloof, and pensive, yet ready to fire off in manic glee when the words call for it. She was by far the "star" of the evening, and patrons were heard buzzing about her style and performance on leaving the hall.
Anna's "family" is sung by the male quartet again, which Saturday night featured Mark James Meier, Paul Grizzell, Todd Grader, and Chris Grapentine. Far more in balance with the larger orchestral forces than they had been earlier with the pit band, the men seemed more fluent and assured in their choral vocalizings. This was especially true in the "Gluttony" movement, where they were heard to startling effect a cappella, full of blended and lovely lyrical lines, with only the occasional strumming of guitar as backdrop. Najar led the orchestra through a safe but pleasing reading of the lyrical score.