Their feet stamping in time with the music, the Nexas saxophone quartet flanked Peter Coleman-Wright as the ensemble’s brassy tone gave an exuberant, rhythmic momentum to the baritone’s rendition of Kurt Weill’s Song of the Free. The rousing Song of the Free was the first of the German-turned-American composer’s set of ‘Propaganda Songs’ from the early 1940s, written for the Lunch Hour Follies, a series of shows designed to boost morale for war industry workers in New York.
Dressed in period costume – down to the wide trousers and flat caps – Nexas and Coleman-Wright brought to life the music of Germany’s Weimar Republic and the war period immediately following, when many of the Weimar composers, like Weill, were forced into exile in the USA, in their new show Composers in Exile, which has been programmed as part of this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
Peter Coleman-Wright and the Nexas Quartet
Composers in Exile was lightly didactic – a voice-over set the scene with a broad-strokes history of the Weimar Republic, images displayed on a screen behind the stage, before the music got underway – but the performers gave the show an entertaining, cabaret feel. They swayed along to Hans Eisler’s lamenting Lied der Bergarbeiter (Song of the Miners) and gathered around Coleman-Wright at the piano for quieter numbers, making liberal use of the stage’s space in a way that felt relaxed and natural.
The musicians played the roles of the Weimar artists, introducing the audience to their works and histories – Nathan Henshaw on tenor sax was Franz Schreker, Jay Byrnes on baritone was Hans Eisler, Andrew Smith on alto was Bertolt Brecht, Michael Duke (his oiled back hair, more Corleone than Duke) was Robert Stolz on soprano sax. While the saxophone players did a fine job in their acting roles, it’s hard to compete with someone like Coleman-Wright (who took the part of Weill) for stage-presence and vocal projection.
The quartet brought loads of energy, effortless virtuosity and drum-tight ensemble work to the performances, their playing precise and powerful, but with a vibrant agility that kept the music moving, particularly in works like the bouncy Ballade vom angenehmen Leben (Ballad of the Pleasant Life). Duke’s honey-toned soprano sax was a highlight, providing a contrast of register to the otherwise low-pitched quintet.
Peter Coleman-Wright and the Nexas Saxophone Quartet
Coleman-Wright, whose dark tone matched the sound of the saxophones almost too well, gave the more serious songs drama and gravitas, but he also showed a lighter side, demonstrating incredible diction in Weill’s patter song Tschaikowsky, from the 1941 Broadway musical Lady in the Dark, which he dispatched with crisp precision and resonant flair.
Although the tone of the show was one of light entertainment, darker themes were woven through the programme, the anti-Semitism the composers experienced in their lives and careers mirrored in images of Jewish persecution splashed up on the screen during otherwise optimistic music. But there was defiant humour, too, the musicians thumbing their noses at Nazi guidelines on jazz calling for a restriction on the use of saxophones, while the posters from the era that were alternately disturbing and absurd.
Balance issues came and went throughout the show, as sometimes even Coleman-Wright’s stentorian baritone wasn’t always able to crest the Nexas Quartet’s raw power – the four players gave the aural impression of a much larger band – and greater care with the sound design would have made a wonderful performance even more effective.
For an encore, the quintet whipped out Weill’s ballade Mack the Knife, slow and almost mournful in German, the stage bathed in red light, then upbeat and bubbly for the English translation.
Composers in Exile is a rich, entertaining step back into the Weimar Era, guided by the bronzed sounds of the musically well-matched Peter Coleman-Wright and the Nexas Quartet. Well worth checking out.
Peter Coleman-Wright and the Nexas Quartet perform Composers in Exile is at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 15 – 16. Their album Ballads of the Pleasant Life is out now on ABC Classics.