Ute Lemper | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Ute Lemper 

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UTE LEMPER

Some contemporary singers who draw upon the repertoire of the Weimar Republic affect a husky world-weariness, in homage to (or imitation of) Lotte Lenya and Marlene Dietrich. But Germany's Ute Lemper brushes away such nostalgic preconceptions with her clarion mezzo and her vibrant interpretations, which blend the stellar technique and musical precision of a classical lieder singer with the high theatricality of a consummate actor and dancer (which she is). Her robust, alluring, imaginatively stylized vocals make us realize that for all its corruption and instability, 1920s Berlin was a culture with a voracious appetite for life and an almost manic determination to create a humanist society. Lemper's wonderful new London CD, Berlin Cabaret Songs, delves into long-neglected material by such songwriters as Friedrich Hollaender, Mischa Spoliansky, Rudolf Nelson, Kurt Tucholsky, and Marcellus Schiffer. These composers and lyricists created a treasure trove of quirky, funny, moving material denounced as "degenerate" by the Nazis--songs such as "It's All a Swindle" (a bouncy send-up of money-grubbing politicians) and "A Little Attila" (an eerily prophetic tune about a woman who dreams of a strong, sexy fuhrer); anthems of alternative sexuality such as "The Lavender Song" ("Round us up, send us away / That's what you'd really like to do / But...you cannot destroy our love") and the 1928 Dietrich hit "When the Special Girlfriend"; and the lyrical, bittersweet "Munchhausen," a vision of a world without war, bigotry, or reproductive oppression whose refrain--"Truth is hard and tough as nails / That's why we need fairy tales"--encapsulates the theme of reality versus illusion that runs through all Lemper's work. These concerts, presented by Performing Arts Chicago, will draw primarily from the new album, but there'll also be samplings from her revelatory recordings of songs by Kurt Weill and Edith Piaf. Thursday, March 13, 7:30 PM, and next Friday and Saturday, March 14 and 15, 8 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 773-722-5463. ALBERT WILLIAMS

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by Jean Claude Marduze.

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