Giving Voice To The Past
The 12 singers of Chanticleer pay tribute to a legendary German cabaret act.
Thursday, August 15, 2002
Photo: Historical Note-the Grammy award-winning ensemble Chanticleer is modeling their next show on the work of The Comedian Harmonists, who were disbanded in Hitler''s Germany. Music director Joseph Jennings is wearing glasses.
In their heyday, The Comedian Harmonists served as messengers of one of music''s greatest virtues, its power to elicit joy even in dark times. Founded in Berlin in 1928 by Harry Frommermann, this musical group of six men-five singers and a pianist-delighted cabaret audiences with their imaginative arrangements of numbers ranging from modern jazz and classical standards to old-timey parlor songs and popular folk tunes. Marlene Dietrich launched her career with the group. They toured around the world, made recordings, mingled with famous conductors, film stars, even boxers. Germany was mired in post-war inflation and unemployment, yet Berlin sparkled with artistic creativity, and Frommermann''s group fit right in. "The Comedian Harmonists teach you to laugh again!" their posters exclaimed.
In 1933, their world changed. As the Nazis tightened their grip on Germany, voices deemed "non-Aryan" were silenced. In 1934 the Comedian Harmonists were accused of "Jewish-Marxist bawling," and in the following year its Jewish members, including Frommermann, were forced to leave the country. (He spent many years working as a cab driver in New York.)
Tomorrow evening, at All Saints Episcopal Church in Carmel, the all-male choral group Chanticleer will perform an evening of music devoted to the legacy of The Comedian Harmonists. Billed as "an orchestra of voices," this San Francisco ensemble of 12 men, which won a Grammy in 2000 for Best Small Ensemble Performance, is known for its wide-ranging repertoire, from Gregorian chants and Renaissance polyphony to modern jazz and spirituals. The Boston Globe recently described their singing as "breathtaking in its accuracy of intonation, purity of blend, variety of color and swagger of style."
This blend of precision and swing also characterized The Comedian Harmonists, whose greatest strength lay in their musical arrangements. Like Chanticleer, the German group "would tailor things especially to their sound," says Joseph Jennings, Chanticleer''s music director. In a phone interview from his home in San Francisco, where the group is currently recording a new album to celebrate Chanticleer''s 25th anniversary, Jennings talks about how they came to put together this musical tribute to The Comedian Harmonists.
"I was familiar with their music for many years," Jennings says. "There was a documentary on German television in 1976, and a film about the group in 1998." Jennings was especially struck by comments from concertgoers in Germany, who would say that Chanticleer "sounds just like the Comedian Harmonists."
"They only wanted to sing," Jennings says of Frommermann''s group. He notes that after the group was forced to disband in 1934, individual members tried to recreate their success in other combinations, in other countries, but without success. "It was a special combination, that combination of men, that made the group what it was."
On the program Friday evening, Jennings will accompany the singers on piano in The Comedian Harmonists'' original arrangements. Familiar orchestral works such as a Brahms Hungarian Rhapsody and a Menuett by Boccherini will take on new vocal colors. They will also perform one of the German group''s biggest hits, Duke Ellington''s Creole Love Call, which includes a precise vocal transcription of Cootie Williams'' original trumpet solo. Other cabaret and parlor songs sure to elicit smiles are Tea for Two, Veronika, and Mein Onkel Bumba (aus Kalumba tanzt nur Rumba), a Calypso arrangement of a song (When Yuba Plays the Rumba on the Tuba) by The Revelers, the American vocal group that was Frommerman''s initial inspiration.
The title of Friday''s concert, "Between Two Wars: The Art of the Comedian Harmonists," sums up the bittersweet nature of a tribute that celebrates the talent and creativity of the short-lived German group, even as it acknowledges the wider forces of history that too often destroy beauty with the weapons of hatred and prejudice. In our current world of increasing intolerance and violence, a revival of these long-forgotten voices, a remembrance of their harmony and laughter and musical joy, seems more necessary than ever.
Chanticleer''s Between Two Wars: The Art of the Comedian Harmonists, will be performed at Carmel''s All Saints Episcopal Church Friday at 8pm. Tickets are $25-34. Call 415-392-4400 or 800-407-1400, or visit www.chanticleer.org.