Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Matter of Style

In Rodgers & Hammerstein's 1949 musical, South PacificBloody Mary sings the following lyric:
"Happy talk, keeping talking happy talk.
Talk about things you like to do.
You got to have a dream.
If you don't have a dream.
How you gonna have a dream come true?"
With global economies facing financial collapse, many people's dreams are being trampled to death.  By the end of the year, numerous long-famous businesses (Mervyn's, Merrill Lynch, Bear Stearns, Mother's Cookies) will have evaporated into thin air.  Among the long list of dubious achievements to be added to George W. Bush's execrable legacy will be his reincarnation as the Grinch who stole Christmas.

Escapism is a valuable coping mechanism for difficult times.  Many people use prayer, yoga, alcohol, exercise and drugs as a means of getting from one day to the next.  I've always looked to music and the arts for my lifelines.  This weekend was no exception.

Two years ago I had the great good fortune to attend a concert by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester when they performed at Temple Emanu-el on Arguello Street.  The highly stylized ensemble returned to the Bay area this weekend (courtesy of the San Francisco Jazz Festival) with another meticulously paced and brilliantly realized performance.  

Appearing at that glorious palace of art deco, the Oakland Paramount Theater,  Raabe and his musicians rocked the joint with their dance band arrangements of popular songs from the 1920s and 1930s.  In addition to the main program,  two of their encores were "San Francisco" and a period spoof of the Britney Spears hit, "Ooops, I did it again."

In an era when popular musicians rely heavily on overamplification, elaborate choreography (and sometimes just  running back and forth across the stage to keep their audience's attention), the physical restraint of this ensemble is almost endearing in its old world charm. A remarkably multitalented group of artists (who play several instruments and sing along with Raabe during the course of the evening), their elegant arrangements leave audiences rocking back and forth in their seats, enraptured by the sounds of an era long gone. Whether performing music by Kurt Weill, Irving Berlin, Fritz Kreisler, Franz Lehar, or any number of popular German songs from the Weimar era, their sound is infectious in the best possible way.

The tall, Aryan-looking Raabe looks as if a mad scientist had sampled DNA from David Hyde Pierce, MacCauley Culkin and John Waters, mixed it with the sardonic wit of Victor Borge, garnished it with the ponderous spoken tones of Vincent Price and the lyrical singing voice of Fred Astaire, and then dressed it up in a black tux or white tie and tails.  

"Our next song is a German waltz.  It's not as elegant as an Austrian waltz," explains Raabe with a decidedly wicked sense of musicological mischief, "but it's louder."

His musicmaking leaves people astonishingly happy -- with many concertgoers exiting the auditorium feeling as if they are walking on air.  Watch the video on his home page where he describes the music that is being performed in his "Tonight or Never" tour.  You'll find lots of videos of Raabe and has Palast Orchester on YouTube.  You can order his CDs, DVDs, and MP3s online to gladden your heart when the New Depression gets too depressing.  

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester offer music lovers the perfect tonic with which to chase away their 21st century blues.

* * * * * * *

Among the films being screened at the SFIndie Fest's Doc Fest is Cheryl Furjanic's Sync or Swim, which follows the course of the United States Olympic team's efforts to participate in the synchronized swimming events at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Greece.  Like many "road to the Olympics" documentaries, Sync or Swim carefully outlines the challenges of the sport, introduces the finalists, examines some of the personal dramas that accompany their quest for recognition, follows them to the Olympics and then does a recap of what has happened to the various team members several months after they return home from their bronze medal triumph.

Early parts of the film take a look at the roots of synchronized swimming, including the Billy Rose Aquacade and the rise of Esther Williams to stardom in Hollywood musicals.  Like competitive figure skating, there is a definite artistic component to synchronized swimming.  Not all moves work well for certain teams and it is up to their coaches to create a visual routine that is stunning, yet executable (and where swimmers won't easily be penalized for being the slightest bit out of position).

Sync or Swim is not the most exciting sports documentary you will ever see, perhaps because these women are so keenly focused on perfecting their routines that they tend to indulge in far fewer histrionics than some of the more narcissistic athletes competing for top honors.  However, if you are a fan of underwater photography, you'll be highly entertained and, in a curious way, soothed by the art form.

1 comment:

Ask the Ace said...

Would the Rabbi approve of Raabe?