A little background: the German composer, Kurt Weill (1900-1950), and poet/playwright Berltolt Brecht (1898-1956) -- best known for their most famous work: Threepenny Opera -- corroborated to create the opera Mahagonny which premiered in Leipzig and was later banned by the Nazi Party. The work is a remarkable twentieth-century classic with a haunting score which combines classical elements with jazz and folk; it also is a savage and lyrical satire on American consumerism. In the fictional city of Mahagonny, profit and pleasure are the ultimate pursuits. The destructive implications for a society organized on the value system of unrestricted economic development and unrestrained sense gratification are the themes which Brecht explores.
Weill's score calls for a standard orchestra consisting of strings: violins, violas, cellos and double basses; woodwinds: two flutes doubling on piccolo, oboes, clarinets, three saxophones, two bassoons doubling on contrabassoon; brass: two French horns, three trumpets, two trombones, tuba; percussion: timpani, bass drums, xylophone, cymbals; with the addition of some other instruments not usually found in a standard opera orchestra: piano, banjo, contrabass guitar (such as found in a Mexican guitar orchestra), zither (an instrument having from thirty to forty strings stretched across a flat soundboard and played with a plectrum and the fingers), harmonium and bandoneón (in this production played on the accordion).
The bandoneón appears four times in the opera. During Acts One and Three it discreetly blends with the orchestra to add a little distinctive color to particular moments during certain scenes. However, during Act Two the instrument shines out during a charming duet with the zither in the Valse lento.
Dr. Robert Page, conductor and music director for the production, elaborated on composer Kurt Weill's use of nontraditional orchestration:
"Kurt Weill's musical score is a work of incredible genius. He transforms the extreme dramatic events of the libretto into musical statements, and he does this with the colors of the orchestra. The musical colors are as extreme as the disparate scenes of the plot. Weill uses a wide variety of sonic timbres, from the elegant and sophisticated, as in the standard symphony orchestra, to the raw and vulgar (so to speak), as in the bandoneón, banjo, saxophone, and zither.
"The bandoneón (or accordion in our production) and zither together play a wonderful duet in Act Two which is absolutely sardonic. Weill masterfully creates the mood of a simple proletarian or peasant atmosphere by his clever use of orchestration. The two folk instruments (bandoneón and zither) play a stunningly beautiful waltz, while the tenor on stage incongruously sings about gorging himself to excess. He actually boasts that he has already eaten two oxen and is starting on a calf."
Jim: Brother, with pleasure like that, dig in! Never stop at half.
Men's Choir: Dig in! You're not too fat! Eat it up! Eat the calf!
Jack: Brothers, watch me do my best. I'll eat my fill of it yet. When it's gone I'll be at rest. Then I can forget. Fill my emptiness. Give me more.
"However, Jack's unabashed gluttony results in catastrophe when he stuffs himself to death. The men's chorus laments his death, and the bandoneón imitates a wailing bagpipe, reminiscent perhaps, of a funeral ceremony in the Scottish Highlands."
Men's Choir: Brother Jack has departed. See his expression of sheer ecstasy. See his look of complete satisfaction. His whole face is shining. That man went the whole bag. That man never stopped himself. A man without fear. Brother Jack has departed.
"Besides the obvious use of widely contrasting instrumental color, Weill also uses meter to convey the particular 'peasant' atmosphere, and frequently uses the meter most closely associated with folk music: the waltz. This association was not invented in the twentieth century; it goes back in time for hundreds of years. In the nineteenth century, Brahms alluded to folk elements in his monumental German Requiem when he composed one movement in the style of a Ländler. Even earlier in the eighteenth century, another composer, Handel, portrayed the earthy sentiments of the shepherds witnessing the birth of Christ in his Messiah by composing his Pastoral Symphony in the style of a Siciliano."
The Carnegie Mellon University production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny was the first time the work had been staged in Pittsburgh.
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