* Notes *
Last night Ute Lemper (pictured left), the Vogler Quartet, and Stefan Malzew made their San Francisco debut at Herbst Theatre. The performance commenced with the three of Schulhoff's Five Pieces for String Quartet (1924), played by the Vogler Quartet. Before Lemper took the stage, Malzew brought out his accordion and clarinet, and set up by the piano opposite the quartet.
The songs began with Piaf, first "Elle fréquentait la Rue Pigalle" and then "L'accordéoniste." In between she explained the narrative of the performance, not only of the individual songs, but of a journey from Paris to Berlin and then eastwards and southwards, around the world, only to end back in Europe. She introduced the other musicians and was sure to point out that Malzew had arranged all the songs. Two Weill pieces followed, "Surabaya Johnny" from Happy End and "Mack the Knife" ("Die Moritat von Mackie Messer") from The Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper). These were sung with phrases in English and German, as were the Eisler songs that came next, these being "Der Graben," "Über den Selbstmord," and "Ballad vom Wasserrad." They went right into the Russian folksong "Tyomnaja Notch" ("Тeмная ночь") and ended the first half of the program with Alberstein's "Stiller Abend," sung in Yiddish. Lemper bends the vowels rather dramatically, so it is difficult to understand exactly what words she is singing. Nonetheless, she communicated the meaning of the text anyway, by her manner and movements.
After the intermission we heard the rest of the Schulhoff piece, then Alberstein's "Ikh stey unter a Bokserboym." There were issues with the amplification, and one of the speakers hummed noisily. This was rectified for the Piazolla songs "Yo Soy Maria," "Oblivion," and "La última grela." This was perhaps the weakest part of an otherwise intensely engaging evening. Thankfully, Brel's "Chanson de Jacky," "Ne me quitte pas," and "Amsterdam" were performed with verve. The encore was a startling improvisation of Weill's "Speak Low," which featured Lemper scat singing with each of the other musicians in turn. Lemper is completely fearless. Her voice has not a trace of prettines. It is a sound that is the epitome of "jolie laide," somehow both beautiful and ugly at once, or even beautiful because of its ugliness.
* Tattling *
The audience clapped for each of Schulhoff's pieces. Someone may have booed during the ovation before intermission, and there was noticeable attrition after the first half. Someone else was very excited to hear Ms. Lemper, screaming "Ute" perhaps a dozen times.