Monday, December 14, 2015

Meow Meow at SoundBox

The Australian cabaret diva Meow Meow above opened the second season of SoundBox concerts in the back of Davies Symphony Hall last weekend, and the concert was a triumph on every level. It was effortlessly hip, musically ambitious, and lots of fun.

Edwin Outwater, the former assistant conductor of the SF Symphony, mentioned that his first thought on seeing the layout of SoundBox was, "This is a cabaret!" With that particular insight, he partnered up with Meow Meow for a remarkably coherent program of miniatures, ranging from Schubert to Laurie Anderson.

They started with Meow Meow singing Schubert's Die Forelle (the Trout), and the happy surprise was her lovely, expressive voice. This was followed by the fourth movement from the same composer's Trout Quintet, complete with huge video projections of trout in a brook, which was less literal and more mesmerizing than it sounds. The Brecht/Weill Ballad of a Drowned Girl sung by Meow Meow crawling up a stage in the center of the room completed the underwater first set.

The second set included Meow Meow singing Weill's Surabaya Johnny (in English) and Pirate Jenny (in German with projected titles). Weill is tricky. Performers often overdo the emotional affects when what the music needs is a mixture of over-the-top and restrained, sweet and sour, quiet and rage. Meow Meow provided all that and then some, going from bruised romantic masochist in Johnny to murderous dreaming chambermaid in Jenny with very different deliveries. I could have happily listened to her sing this music all evening. The chamber orchestra arrangements by Australian Iain Grandage were superb, and Outwater was in his element in some of the best conducting I have heard from him. In between the two songs, the orchestra played Hindemith's Kammermusik No. 1 in a lively performance that prompted the question, "Who knew Hindemith could be such fun?"

For the third set, Meow Meow grabbed a volunteer from a divan and made him help her carry a lengthy score to Schulhoff's 1919 Sonata Erotica across the concert hall while she sang exact notes for what is essentially an extended proto Donna Summer orgasm ditty, with Outwater remaining onstage and translating the German with a deadpan delivery.

It was funny, sexy and silly without being dumb.

Upping the ante was the appearance of operatic soprano Nikki Einfeld in Ligeti's Mysteries of the Macabre, an excerpt from his opera Le Grande Macabre, where a police inspector morphs into a kinky diva midway.

Musically and dramatically, it's a very difficult showpiece and requires courage to perform. Ms. Einfeld took no prisoners.

The final number was a sweet lullaby called The Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin) by Laurie Anderson, again with an arrangement by Grandage. It was a perfect ending.

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