For an evening of nostalgia, good music, and light humor, be sure to catch Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester if they happen to pass through your town on their next USA tour. Max and his cohort of 12 musicians will transport you back to Berlin, Germany in the 1920s and ’30s during the days of the Weimar Republic, delivering meticulous recreations of tunes written by German songwriters (such as Kurt Weill) and their American counterparts (like Irving Berlin and Cole Porter).
You can imagine what it was like listening to The King of Jazz—Paul Whiteman—and those other great bands of the Roaring ’20s and early ’30s: Isham Jones, Leo Reisman, the Casa Loma Orchestra, and Gus Arnheim’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra playing such long-forgotten classics like “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” “Heartaches,” or “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf,” a popular novelty tune from a 1933 Disney cartoon, Three Little Pigs.
Max Raabe developed an interest in the sound of German dance and film music from the ’20s and ’30s from watching old films on television and from his parents’ record collection. One of his favorites was the Comedian Harmonists, an all-male, close-harmony group that performed throughout Europe between 1928 and 1934.
Raabe studied music at the Berlin University of the Arts intending to become a baritone opera singer. He and eleven other students formed the Palast Orchester in 1985. (The band name means “Palace Orchestra.”) They spent a year learning arrangements that Raabe found at flea markets before making their first public performance at the 1987 Berlin Theaterball. They were a secondary act in the Lobby, but their performance was so well received that a good share of the audience left the main attraction to hear Palast.
The 54-year-old Raabe writes original songs, including film music, and has made cameo appearances as a stereotypical singer-entertainer from the Golden ’20s in German films. The Orchester had a big hit in 1992 with an original pop tune in the 1920s style: “Kein Schwein ruft mich an,” whose literal translation is “Not a single pig calls me.” While the meaning was intended to be “Why does no one ever call,” it was an immediate hit in spite of its unsavory connotation. “My mother was shocked,” Raabe recalled. “It was months until I could tell her I wrote it.”
First performing in the United States in Los Angeles in 2004, Raabe had his first concert in New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2005 and brought the full Orchester to the States in 2007 and 2010. His style as a singer of considerable range has been described as “capturing the cunning rasp of the cabaret singer, the confidence of the bel canto hero, the carefree timbre of early jazz, and the falsetto of Ragtime.”
On stage, he is dressed in tails (while the members of the Orchester are in tuxedos), his hair slicked down. The lighting is always on the Orchester until a spotlight focuses on Raabe when he steps forward to sing. When not performing, he often leans casually against the grand piano, and then steps forward to deliver a humorous line in laconically introducing the next song while raising a meaningful eyebrow. Cecilia Crisafulli, the violin soloist, is always coiffed and gowned and is referred to as “our princess on stage, our bird of paradise.”
The Orchester takes a classical approach to how they present their repertoire of ballroom numbers, romantic ballads, and novelty tunes in their own delightful German way, but always stressing authenticity and preserving each composer’s original melodies and harmonies. They on occasionally include selections made famous by modern pop artists like Tom Jones and Britney Spears in their programs and recordings.
The Weimar Republic refers to Germany and its political system between late 1918 (the end of World War I) and 1933 (the rise of Nazism) when Germans hoped to create a modern liberal democracy. Owing to a severe economic depression, the first years of the Republic were unsettled, but by the mid-1920s, Germany had moved into a more prosperous period. It was a time of economic recovery, social renewal, and cultural innovation, which brought on a surge of music halls and dancing schools, and every grand hotel boasted its own dance orchestra. The election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor brought a dramatic end to this bold experiment.
But for two hours, it was a joy to return to the Golden Age of Weimar and hear the mellifluous blending of four saxophones/ clarinets, two trumpets, a trombone, violin, sousaphone/double bass and a rhythm section of piano, guitar, and drums bring back those happier times and the melodies that were the rage of the tuneful 1920s and early 1930s.