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Boston Phoenix Feature Article

Angel Voices

by Jeffrey Gantz
March 14, 2002

Will the audience get to sing along with Marlene Dietrich on "Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt"? Probably not — but with Boston Secession you never know what you’re in for. Three years ago, Jane Ring Frank’s then-fledgling vocal group (who take their name from Gustav Klimt’s Vienna Secession) provided a "soundtrack" to Wim Wenders’s Der Himmel über Berlin (better known here as Wings of Desire), replacing parts of Jürgen Knieper’s largely ambient score with music by the likes of Beethoven, Rossini, Arvo Pärt, and Philip Glass, all performed live by 20 voices and a small instrumental group. It was an eye-and-ear-opening experience. I missed their subsequent rendition of Alfonso Arau’s Como agua para chocolate ("Like Water for Chocolate"), but I won’t make that mistake this Saturday when they take on Josef von Sternberg’s Der blaue Engel ("The Blue Angel"), the film that made Marlene Dietrich — or at least her legs — into an international movie icon.

The musical line-up for this presentation is even more ambitious. It would have been easy just to program cabaret songs from Kurt Weill’s Weimar Germany — and there is one Weill selection, the "Kanonen-Song" from Der Dreigroschenoper. But the rest is as unlikely as it is intriguing: Erik Satie’s Sonatine bureaucratique, the second movement from Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, the opening chorale from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the "Bei Männern, welche Liebe fühlen" duet for Pamina and Papageno from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s cello-and-piano variations on that duet, Pärt’s Solfeggio, the Libera me and Dies irae from the Verdi Requiem, and the opening movement from Brahms’s Ein deutsches Requiem.

What’s odder still is that, at the Somerville Theatre, the 22 Boston Secession vocalists will be backed not by, as you might expect, a chamber orchestra but by a "Weimar cabaret band." Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms go Brecht? Mozart to a Mackie Messer beat? Yet Frank brought off some improbable juxtapositions in the course of her Wenders project (the impeccable execution of her musicians didn’t hurt). And Sternberg’s film is an astute choice. In 1930, cinema in Germany (and everywhere else) was still primarily visual; you can watch Der blaue Engel without subtitles (though they will be provided at the Somerville) or even sound and still understand almost everything. Some of Frank’s selections have an obvious logic to them: the "Kanonen-Song" for Professor Immanuel Rath’s pursuit of the students at the Blue Angel; the Zauberflöte duet for when Lola Lola and Immanuel get married, and Brahms’s "Selig sind die da Leid tragen" ("Blessed are they that mourn") for the professor’s final return to the schoolroom. Others promise to shed new sonic light on the film: Stravinsky’s "Exspectans exspectavi" for the professor’s discovery that his students are frequenting the Blue Angel; Bach’s "Kommt, ihr Töchter" for his first morning-after with Lola Lola.

Frank points out that the goal of the Vienna Secession was to break ranks with tradition. Performing some of the greatest achievements of German music Weimar cabaret style and using the result to redefine Sternberg’s film certainly qualifies. Mark this one required viewing — and listening.?Boston Secession presents Der blaue Engel at 7:30 p.m. this Saturday, March 16, at the Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square. Tickets are $15 and $30; call (617/508) 931-ARTS.

© 2002 Boston Phoenix
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