in performance: ute lemper and the lexington philharmonic orchestra

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ute lemper during a monday rehearsal with the lexington philharmonic. lexington herald-leader staff photo by rich copley.

The slant of Ute Lemper’s remarkable performance last night with the Lexington Philharmonic at the Opera House was in many ways autobiographical. The first set celebrated the French chansons of Edith Piaf and Jacques Brel so often tagged as cabaret songs. This is music the singer undoubtedly absorbed while living in Paris, if not earlier. The second was largely devoted to the Weimar works of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill to which the German-born Lemper has long been a devoted revivalist.

When the show came down to essentials, though, the chanteuse was singing about two things – love and scoundrels. Given that many of the songs were sung in their native tongues, it was up to Lemper and the orchestra to unlock the music’s inherent sass and drama. To that end, this New Year’s Eve concert was nothing short of transportive.

While Lemper unleashed a wildly versed vocabulary in her singing – coy whispers, scolding bravura and, at times, gorgeous contralto – half the fun was watching her sell this material. A veteran stage actress, Lemper performed much of the program, especially the chansons, with a very natural theatricality – a wave of the arms, a clench of the fist, a flash of the eyes or, in the saucier moments, a discreet swivel of the hips. Too bad there couldn’t have been video screens to enlarge such modest embellishments to the upper decks of the Opera House.

Ah, but what of love and scoundrels? That’s where Lemper’s often astounding blend of tone, temperament and intuition came into play. The Friedrich Hollaender penned/Marlene Dietrich popularized Falling in Love Again (an unplanned addition to the program) and Norbert Schultze’s Lili Marleen were sung almost as lullabies by Lemper with only sparse piano accompaniment. But for the Brecht/Weill staple Surabaya Johnny, the Philharmonic acted as enambler as Lemper unloaded the song’s terse command in English (“Take the damn pipe out of your mouth, you swine”).

The autobiographical nature of the program also meant offering a few tastes of the many styles outside of the chansons and the Weimar that Lemper has regularly reached to throughout her career, including the sublime tango music of Astor Piazzolla (Marie de Buenos Aires) and the singer’s own stage background (the Chicago favorite All That Jazz, which closed the evening). Both displayed impressive stylistic reach on the part of the Philharmonic.

But perhaps the most succinct summit of love and scoundrels came during the popular Die Moritat von Mackie Messer from The Threepenny Opera. With a bowler and a mischievous smile as her only props, Lemper summoned a dance hall feel both foreign and familiar. What a profoundly fun way to get the last word in on 2014.

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