Magazine

It’s now or never

Singer Max Raabe and his 12-piece Palast Orchester ensemble prepare to treat Israel with their unique blend of old German-Jewish songs and original humor.

Max Rabb and Heute Nacht Oder Nie
Photo by: Courtesy
Later this month singer Max Raabe will bring his 12-piece Palast Orchester ensemble here from Germany, for the first time, for four performances of their Heute Nacht Oder Nie (Tonight or Never) show in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa. On the face of it, besides being a highly polished and entertaining cabaret-style retro act with more than 20 years of honing and performing from the Far East to Carnegie Hall, there doesn’t appear to be too much that is extraordinary about the show.

Then again there is the – for us – not inconsiderable matter of the historical context of the repertoire Raabe and the band have been putting out to audiences for so long, which is based on songs that were popular in Germany during the 1920s and early ’30s, “up to 1933,” as Raabe is keen to point out. Hits from America, which also made it big in Europe at the time, also feature in the show.

At the press conference after the ensemble’s sellout show in Bonn at the end of August, the 47-year-old bandleader was clearly moved by the fact that the journalists he was addressing were from Israel. “I always mention the name of the person who wrote the song we are about to perform,” he declares. “Most of our favorite composers and lyric writers are Jewish, everybody [in Germany] knows that. That is the reason why I always say the names of the composers because they were forbidden from 1933 to 1945, and I don’t say anything else about the composers. That is my important duty when I perform the songs, because the songs were so fantastic. Every name has to be mentioned during the concert, and that is my only message and this is what I do on stage. When I do interviews in German, I always explain this at length.”

Besides his eclectic musical interests, which range from opera to contemporary pop, Raabe was drawn to the music of pre-Nazi Germany from a young age, and established the Palast Orchester in 1986. He studied at the Berlin University of the Arts from 1988 to 1995, as a baritone opera singer. He writes original music, including film music, and also does covers of hit pop songs in a 1920s-’30s band style, including such numbers as Britney Spears’s “Oops!... I Did It Again” and Tom Jones’s “Sex Bomb.”

Raabe has also made several cameo appearances, mostly as stereotypical 1920s and 1930s singers and entertainers, in a number of films by German directors, including Werner Herzog’s Invincible (2001), and Wenzel Storch’s Die Reise ins Glück (2004).

There is a strong Jewish presence running through Heute Nacht Oder Nie. The show’s title song was written by Mischa Spoliansky, a Russian- born Jewish composer who also lived in Germany, Austria and, after 1933, in Britain.

Raabe often changes the repertoire, according to location and audience, but many of the Heute Nacht Oder Nie staples were originally performed by the Comedian Harmonists, an internationally acclaimed, all-male German close harmony ensemble that performed between 1928 and 1934, and was one of the most successful musical acts in Europe before World War II.

The group consisted of singers Harry Frommermann, Asparuh “Ari” Leschnikoff, Erich Collin, Roman Cycowski and Robert Biberti, and pianist Erwin Bootz. All the members of the Comedian Harmonists were either Jewish or had a Jewish spouse, and their highly successful career as a band came to an abrupt end in 1934, when Nazi censorship of their performances became too restrictive.

THE HALLMARK of the Comedian Harmonists was its members’ ability to blend their voices so that the individual vocalists could move seamlessly in and out of the basic vocal substratum.

Its repertoire was wide ranging, taking in folk and classical songs arranged by Frommermann to witty popular songs of the day, penned by the likes of non-Jewish Austrian composer Peter Igelhoff, German-born Werner Richard Heymann and Austrian-born Paul Abraham. Heymann and Abraham fled Germany in 1933 and ended up in the US.

Those who catch the shows here will, no doubt, recognize some of the better known numbers in Heute Nacht Oder Nie which, although Raabe has yet to finalize the Israeli concert lineup, is likely to include “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” which became a smash hit for the Andrews Sisters in the late ’30s, and Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” which became popular after being performed by Fred Astaire in the 1935 movie Top Hat and is also well known for the joyous duo rendition by jazz icons Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald in the 1950s. Naturally, there will be some Kurt Weill contributions to the show too, some originally sung by Marlene Dietrich.

Raabe believes that the numbers in the show, while evidently pertaining to a very specific era of music and German culture, are timeless and have across-the-board appeal. “For me this is the most elegant pop music ever made,” he says. “There is an elegance and humor in the songs which you can’t find nowadays. People love Mozart and Beethoven and Schubert, and no one says to me, ‘Mozart is so old.’ I think it is the same with these compositions as well.

We perform to people of all ages and all walks of life all over the world. I hope the audiences in Israel are also as varied.”

Jerusalemite octogenarian Margot Wohlmann-Wertheim, who was born in Fulda, near Frankfurt, is certainly looking forward to the show. “I remember some of the songs from my childhood,” she says. “My mother used to sing the popular songs of the day while she did the washing up, songs like ‘Wenn die Elisabeth’ and ‘Ich Küsse Ihre Hand, Madame.’ We couldn’t afford a radio but you’d hear those songs around, and in cafes and bars.”

While most people have strong nostalgic feelings toward the music they heard in their childhood, one wonders whether listening to the songs that Raabe and the orchestra are bringing here may prove to be a painful experience for some. The Holocaust often curtailed or, at the very least, severely disrupted the innocent childhood days of many Jews who either managed to get out of Germany through various channels, such as via the Kindertransports to England, or somehow managed to survive the camps, or in hiding. “No I doubt that will be the case,” says Wohlmann-Wertheim, who arrived in England on a Kindertransport at the age of 12. “I think German-born Jews of my generation will just treat the show as good entertainment, and nothing else.”

That view is shared by Werner Loval, 84, a former high-ranking Israeli diplomat who founded the Anglo-Saxon real-estate company and was born in Bamberg in Bavaria.

He also left Germany on a Kindertransport, just one month after his low key bar mitzva celebrations.

“There were no synagogues left after Kristallnacht, so we made do with something small,” he recalls. “I remember hearing some of the songs that will be in Heute Nacht Oder Nie at home on the radio. I don’t think yekkes have negative feelings about this music, not any more. I lived in New York from 1945 to 1955, and there was a very active German Jewish community there back then, and we all enjoyed those songs. I’m sure older Israelis from Germany, and the next generation, will come to the show and will enjoy hearing the songs again. ” Raabe’s intention to present the songs in a bygone setting is carefully addressed in every aspect of the show. He and the members of the band are immaculately turned out on stage, and the props are reminiscent of the big band settings of the golden era of jazz and musicals.

After more than two decades on the road with Heute Nacht Oder Nie, Raabe has got the whole thing down to a meticulous T. He appears in tails – which immediately conjures up images of Astaire and his ilk – and the members of the almost all-male band are equally smart in their suits. At the Bonn concert, the one younger member of the troupe, 20-something violinist Cecilia Crisafulli, turned out in a couple of suitably glittering evening dresses which both contrasted with and complemented the otherwise uniform male band members’ attire.

Even so, Raabe says he does not want to simply present a blast from the past. “Nostalgia is not part of what we do. Yes, we wear these clothes, but we don’t put on tuxedos. Our violinist wears elegant dresses but she doesn’t wear those big feathers they had in those days.

Nostalgia is not necessary, the music is so strong and you don’t play Mozart wearing knee trousers, do you?” With “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” included in the two-CD set of the show, one might expect Raabe to perform some Yiddish songs on his debut foray here. “I did think about it,” he says, “but these songs were originally composed in German, of course by Jewish composers, but that is not what is important here.

I pay more attention to the wonderful compositions and the humor of the songs. I hope to learn a few Hebrew words in Israel, so I can use them in the show, but Yiddish sounds so familiar to a middle German accent that it is too risky for me to find the right pronunciation. I think it would be better to sing a song in Hebrew, but I can’t find any from that period.”

The Max Raabe-Palaster Orchester show starts out as something of a slow burner. The first impression is of a well-drilled and wellstarched performer who is more intent on presenting as faithful a reproduction of the music as possible and, especially, in the spirit of the entertainment of the time. Raabe not only dresses the part, his every movement appears tailor made to evoke the style, the élan, of the era.

WHILE THE BOYS (and girl) get on with the instrumental business, Raabe leans by the side of the grand piano with a convincing air of studied nonchalance. His stance by the microphone is suitably wooden and his airily high singing which, as a natural baritone, must have required some work to achieve embraces the perfect, almost oxymoronic, mix of a laid-back vocal spearhead.

The entertainment plot thickens as the show progresses, not least courtesy of Raabe’s deadpan in-between-numbers comic patter.

At one stage of the Bonn concert, the audience was told that music “has always been closely linked to destiny and personal tragedy.” Fixing the audience with a wry gaze, and allowing a momentary pregnant silence to elapse, he added dryly, “Who cares?” The thousand-plus patrons erupted with laughter.

Thereafter the 12 highly skilled instrumentalists began to embark on a series of shenanigans, which included doubling and even tripling up on various instruments, with all sorts of well-rehearsed, but nonetheless hilarious, “calamities” befalling some of the players en route. Part of the comic element was provided by one of the band members playing the gargantuan, and rarely used, bass saxophone. Ordinarily an equally voluminous, and comic sounding, sousaphone is employed but, as Raabe explained, the sousaphonist was indisposed for the Bonn gig.

There was a sense of the surreal about a bunch of Israeli journalists attending the show in Germany, particularly in the context of Raabe’s declared intent on paying tribute to Jewish songwriters. But filmmakers Brigitte Bertele and Julia Willmann, who will be coming to make a documentary about Raabe and the Palast Orchester’s tour here, feel the show goes over very well with audiences of all types and ages. Indeed, Raabe noted that he and the ensemble have performed in New York, for audiences that included Holocaust survivors, and said that “the show was very well received by them. No one said anything bad about it.”

Even so, Bertele says she and Willmann will try to talk to as many Holocaust survivors, and younger generations, as possible about the act. “In our perception, Max Raabe and his interpretations of the songs, which have almost been forgotten, have a strong impact on the generation [of Germans] who grew up with the music, but also on the second generation who remember that their parents were listening or dancing to those records. In our eyes, it does not seem to make a big difference to the audience if the origin of a song was Jewish, German or American as the music simply feels familiar to them. The listeners identify with the songs, some of them quietly sing the lyrics during the show and consider the music as a part of their biographies. The songs open the door to the memories of their childhood, of their first love and that sort of thing.”

Still Bertele is aware that German-born Israelis may have a different take on Heute Nacht Oder Nie. “I don’t know how they will react when they hear the songs,” she says. “It might evoke ambivalent feelings to hear German songs from that era. For us it is a great chance to learn more about the heritage of the yekkes’ culture as well as contemporary Hebrew culture. It is great to accompany the very first performance for an audience who partly shares the religious and cultural identity of the composers and writers.”

THE RAABE SHOW also appears to have won the full official endorsement of the Jewish community of Berlin. Lala Süsskind, chairwoman of the community, says she is “a great fan” of Raabe, adding that he is “a great guy and performer,” and that Heute Nacht Oder Nie plays an important educational role too.

“Raabe is doing his best to let Germans today know that most of the German composers of that time were Jewish. I would say everybody who goes to the show enjoys it and only has good things to say about it. Maybe Germans who go to the show will think about what the Nazis did to the German culture in general, not just to the Jewish culture.”

Süsskind is also excited at the prospect of the forthcoming shows here. “I am sure there are many Israelis – especially the yekkes – who will love it. The yekkes know all the songs. I think it’s a beautiful present for them.”

She does not expect any adverse reactions from German-born Israelis, even though she believes some may have mixed feelings. “I don’t think the Holocaust survivors will have bad thoughts about it,” she declares. “They will know the songs and will say, ‘We once had a beautiful time in Germany and it vanished,’ that people left or perished. There may be good and bad feelings.”

In Germany, it seems, there is no escaping the past. On the third morning of a four-day stay at the Hilton Hotel in Bonn, I discovered that it was built on the site of the Great Synagogue, which was burned down on Kristallnacht.

Süsskind says that, as the hotel already exists, it is a matter of accepting the facts on the ground and getting on with things.

“I would be against it if there had been a cemetery there, but a lot of Jewish life vanished.

I would appeal to people not to build hotels on such sites and that they give respect to the Jews.”

Hopefully, the Raabe-Palast Orchester show is making a contribution in that department.

Heute Nacht Oder Nie will be performed at the Opera House in Tel Aviv on October 18 and 19, the Jerusalem Theater on October 20 and at the Krieger Hall in Haifa on October 21. All shows start at 8:30 p.m.


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