It may have seemed like a curious combination, a singer and four saxophones, but in reality it proved to be a match made in heaven. The singer was Peter Coleman-Wright, and the four saxophonists were the virtuoso Nexas Quartet. Their show, Composers in Exile focussed on the careers of a handful of composers who fled Germany during the Weimar period, providing a mini-history lesson of the events which gave birth to cabaret.
Composers in Exile was presented, documentary style, on a stage bare except for five stools, a grand piano, and a screen overhead on which images were projected of the composers, the Jewish persecutions from which they fled, posters, contemporary newspaper reports and cabaret venues of the time
A pre-recorded female voice-over set the mood before each of the five performers assumed the role of a different composer. Coleman-Wright was Kurt Weill. Michael Duke was Robert Stolz. Andrew Smith portrayed Bertolt Brecht, Nathan Henshaw was Franz Schreker, and Jay Burns was Hans Eisler. They took turns addressing the audience.
As Coleman-Wright sang the songs and the musicians played, they occasionally stamped their feet in unison, swayed to the music, sat together on the stools, or simply grouped around him when at one point he played the piano and sang a Robert Stolz song, I’ve fallen in Love a Thousand Times. It was simple staging, but its Brechtian overtones worked perfectly to provide an absorbing context for the music, all of which was performed without reference to sheet music.
Most of the songs were sung in German. Coleman-Wright drew on his considerable operatic experience to colour his rich, baritone for his portrayals of protesting miners, seedy lowlifes, or cabaret performers about whom the songs were written. He was equally effective with the more sentimental love-songs, especially Weill’s lovely September Song which drew tears from more than a few of his rapt audience.
Songs by Hans Eisler, Robert Stolz, Erich Korngold and Franz Schreker were all included, but it was those by Kurt Weill which dominated, both from his collaboration with Bertolt Brecht and others written later in America. The Threepenny Opera scored both an instrumental medley from the quartet, and a stirring rendition of Mack the Knife from Coleman-Wright.
It could have been heavy going, but the brilliance of the five performers, their easy charm and obvious affection and enthusiasm for the material, proved a seductive combination in a presentation which informed the mind while pleasuring the soul. Quite an achievement.
Peter Coleman-Wright and Nexus Quartet: Composers in Exile
Dunstan Playhouse – Adelaide Festival Centre, King William Road, Adelaide
Performance: Thursday 15 June 2017 – 6.30pm
For more information, visit: www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au for details.
Image: Peter Coleman-Wright (centre) and Nexus Quartet – courtesy of Nexus Quartet
Review: Bill Stephens OAM