Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester returned to Royce Hall on Thursday as part of the remains of the UCLA Live performing arts series. Since the departure of former artistic director David Sefton in 2010, the series has lain fallow with little more than return appearances by a handful of annual favorites like David Sedaris, Ute Lemper, and Raabe. (Allegedly the organization also passed on presenting the upcoming revival of Glass' Einstein on the Beach that will be seen at Cal Performances in October after a stint at BAM in New York.) The good news is that incoming artistic director Kristy Edmunds has taken over and will unveil the first season under her leadership this summer with what I’m told will be some exciting early plans. One hopes she can revive this moribund organization, and certainly everyone in the performing arts community in Los Angeles wishes her the best for what I’m sure will be a big challenge. Max Raabe's appearance harkened back to the heydays of Sefton's tenure here and even though the program itself felt mostly recycled from the group's last outing it was great to have them back with their particular brand of nostalgia for the popular music of a century ago.
Now in their 25th year, the group still stays true to its successful formula: big band favorites of the late 1920s and 30s delivered with a mix of sincerity and ironic humor. Raabe and his players are all dressed in dapper evening wear of the period with most of the songs played in their original German language. There are familiar standards by the likes of Cole Porter alongside novelty tongue-in-cheek hits about asparagus and Salome. And though the staging evokes Weimar culture, the performance on the whole rests squarely in an ironic awareness of the present. The outdated and comparatively tame lyrics of the songs are funny precisely because of their contrast to what the audience knows of the modern world. This is more than nostalgia or kitsch. The commitment and level of musicianship allude to something more than just that.
Raabe and his high tenor are one of the attractions of the group. Over the years, the lightness and ease of some of the top notes has diminished, but his sound overall is still quite pleasant. His halting delivery is still razor sharp with turns of phrase that veer this way and that unexpectedly. And he knows how to deliver a song. His insightful, melancholic version of Nena's "Irgendwie, Irgendwo, Irgendwann" with only piano accompaniment was a highlight of the evening. Of course all of the band members are multi-instrumentalists and everyone gets into the act as a soloist sooner or later. If there was any difference between this outing and the group's 2010 appearance, it was the larger, more often oddly costumed crowd. In Los Angeles, it's can be difficult to tell when people are in costume and when they aren’t. Poor fashion sense is a badge of honor. And there was an explosion of women in flapper dresses with headbands and men who stepped out of Cabaret on Thursday. But no matter. It was still funny, still charming, and still a very good time.