Max Raabe, nights in Berlin and afternoons at the Chicago Public Library

Chicago Symphony

Earlier this month, Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester glided through their winter residency at Berlin’s Admiralspalast, the 1910 theater that lends the band its proud moniker. Steps from the Friedrichstraße railway station, once the split capital’s Cold War border, Admiralspalast seems the stronghold of the singer’s whole career — and the fulcrum on which the city’s dynamic, turbulent cultural century still so often pivots.

What the debonair baritone gleans from German flea markets and song sheets around the world always makes its way back to Berlin, Raabe’s home since student days — a reminder that the jazzy melodies and tinged lyrics of the Weimar Republic (1919-33) were as much about what burrowed its way into the capital as the sounds that emanated from its stages.

The Palast Orchester’s current tour, “A Night in Berlin,” which swings April 8 into Symphony Center, celebrates Raabe’s foraging at, of all places, the Chicago Public Library. He recently spoke by phone about how a 1930s Jerome Kern foxtrot drifted out of Chicago’s stacks and into Berlin’s Admiralspalast and how that theater reflects Raabe’s family history, his musical growth and an ever-evolving Berlin that’s always glancing backward. 
Chapter 1: Kern’s “I Won’t Dance” shimmies off Chicago’s shelves 

Raabe: We spent the whole afternoon in the [Chicago] library and found maybe 10 or 12 original arrangements from that time and one of the pieces was “I Won’t Dance.” We were [rehearsing] on tour and figuring out how these arrangements worked, and then we started playing “I Won’t Dance” — it was in Boston. Suddenly the cleaning women in the theater started dancing, and we realized how well these arrangements worked and how brilliant this number still is.

These arrangements are written for many instruments but you have to choose which instrument is playing which tune and melody. There is a lot of material and you have to create your own orchestral version, but this is the second step. The first step is we saw that the cleaning women started dancing.

Our arrangement is the best we could find. Really — it is wonderful. We just taped it in Berlin, where we made a CD and DVD in the Admiralspalast.

At the Chicago Public Library: “I Won’t,” I Don’t” and “I Can’t.” The library’s Balaban and Katz Collection rescued thousands of the theater chain’s dance-band arrangements from the Chicago Theatre basement. Max Raabe spotted the sheet music for “I Won’t Dance” (accession no. 100629) among the library’s 26 arrangements of songs warning “I Won’t,” 106 assuring “I Don’t” and 124 demurring “I Can’t.”

Chapter 3: End of a Berlin era — “Show us the way to the next whisky bar”

Our audience knows what it means if I say, “This song, written in 1928” or “Written in 1932.” They know, one year later, maybe the composer and the lyric writer had to leave the country.

The humor of the time was very Jewish. And the songwriters and lyric writers were very often Jewish.

The Jewish composers wrote the songs to entertain an audience. I want the Jewish composers and lyricists to be honored for their works and not for them to be reduced to their destiny. 

Chapter 7: “We’re more than just the two of us now. We embody something.”

I lived in Kreuzberg and I lived in Neukölln and I always walked the same way from Neukölln to Kreuzberg. Years later, after the walls came down, I went to my old place in Neukölln and walked the same way I’d always walked along that wall. It was like in a film — you see that area you know and suddenly something is completely different. It’s gone. The whole wall was gone.

At the CPL: inside the library, outside the wall and over the bridge. Ageless Swiss actor Bruno Ganz wearies of aging cabaret legend/émigré Curt Bois wandering through a black-and-white library, so Ganz, as the film switches to Technicolor, takes a stroll through West Berlin’s gritty Kreuzberg neighborhood in director Wim Wenders’ prophetic 1987 ode to his divided city, “Wings of Desire” (call no. GERMAN FICTION).

Fast forward a decade to Technicolor-hued actress Franka Potente, racing across the Oberbaum bridge, from Kreuzberg and toward stardom, too young and rushed to recognize Berlin’s once-fortified Cold War crossing. (“Run Lola Run” is call no. PN1995.9.F67 L65 1999.)

And so it is everywhere. You walk and suddenly you realize something’s changed.

I’m visiting the same theaters as in the ’80s but they’re playing completely other things. To me, it’s the same theater and the same architecture inside and outside but it’s a totally different atmosphere. It’s another audience.

For me, it’s not the same city. But it is, of course. 


Read the rest of the review here