With his brilliantined hair, smooth and shiny with pomade, his crisp tuxedo and white tie, German singer and bandleader Max Raabe appears to come from another era. It was a time when people dressed for dinner, when flying was a luxury to be enjoyed not a chore to endure, when women wore crisp dresses to shop and men sported suits and fedoras to go to the office. And to attend a concert, everyone put on their most glamorous outfits.
Sunday afternoon at George Mason University’s Center for the Arts, Raabe, sporting his white tie and tails and his lush baritone, will be joined by his acclaimed Palast Orchester in a program of cabaret music and show tunes from the 1920s through the early 1940s, sung in both German and English.
Raabe, 51, discovered the sound track of his parents’ and grandparents’ generations by watching the old black-and-white movies that played Sunday afternoon on German television when he was a youngster.
“I was always looking for the music scenes in those old movies,” he recalled, speaking from his Berlin home, “and when the band started playing, I didn’t like the way they sang, but I liked the brass, saxophone, violin — the music — that was my thing.”
Trained in opera in college, Raabe began singing as a youngster. “Most of my friends were in a choir or a music school somewhere,” he said, noting he sang in a church choir as a boy. But song was portable and traveled with him wherever he went, unlike the piano, which he never took: “I sang as I was riding my bicycle. Then there was nothing special about it, it wasn’t a big deal, it was a hobby, even less than a hobby. I thought it was just nice to sing with other people, that’s all.”
But as he matured, he decided to pursue operatic studies after being enchanted by the lieder of Schubert and Schumann. “I had no idea if my voice was big enough, great enough or good enough, so I went to a voice teacher and asked if I had a chance. She said, ‘Give it a try, you have the material for a singer.’ ”
Amid intensive vocal study at the university level, Raabe and some like-minded classmates began playing his favorite German standards from the 1920s and ‘30s for fun, entertaining at parties, festivals and nightclubs. Soon it paid university tuition and more.
“The music [I love] comes from a very short period of time during the Weimer Republic, beginning in 1926 when a lot of fantastic composers and talented lyric writers came together to create wonderful songs in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s,” he said. “There was a special kind of humor, a kind of black humor, elegant and very sophisticated.”
That brief golden age of German song ended, of course, in 1933 when Hitler came to power and outlawed Jewish and other “degenerate” artists of all stripes. But, Raabe pointed out, “In these short six years the films and the radios had wonderful songs, pieces you could compare to the lyrics of Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and other American standards.”
In this current tour, which stops at Carnegie Hall following the Northern Virginia appearance, the Palast Orchester, which translates to Palace Orchestra, will play a program of German and American standards from that period — think Fred Astaire crooning “Cheek to Cheek” or Gene Kelly skipping through “Singin’ in the Rain” — along with German pieces, like a Kurt Weill tango, “Youkali,” and his much covered “Moon of Alabama.”
One of Raabe’s most memorable experiences during his decades reviving the music that was virtually snuffed out by the Nazi regime, was the group’s tour to Israel. There, he reported, they met many elderly German Jews who had settled in Israel and shared vivid and strong memories of the music of this period.
He remarked that much of the music written during the Weimer period was penned by Jews.
“Everybody in Germany knows the story behind the music,” he said. “Even if they don’t want to hear it, I will speak about [the history] in interviews on the radio and television. Even today you can find people in Germany who don’t want to know about the Holocaust, but the audience for the orchestra and the people here know what’s going on and they are interested in the history behind the music and behind the culture.”
Thus, he takes care to acknowledge the creators of this special period of music on stage at every performance. “After 1933 the special elegance and humor was gone from the music,” Raabe said. “There is no place for irony in a system like the Third Reich.”
He continued: “All the artists and singers and bandleaders who had to leave or were killed in concentration camps, the Nazis tried to make these names forgotten. That is the reason why I always mention the names of the composers during the concerts.”
Max Raabe and Palast Orchester will perform at the George Mason Center for the Arts in Fairfax on March 2 at 4 p.m. Tickets, at $23-$46, are available by calling 888-945-2468 or visit cfa.gmu.edu/. Available on CD: Golden Age: Max Raabe & Palast Orchester released by Deutsche Grammophon. Visit www.maxraabe.de.