Article by Jeanne Lesinski

After the success of last year's program based around music from Paris, Bijou Orchestra artistic director Leo Najar decided to follow up with a program of German music from the 1920s, one of his favorite historical periods. This time the ensemble honors the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall with the concert "Berlin in Lights" to take place on November 21 at 8 p.m. at the State Theatre in Bay City and on November 22 at 2 p.m. in Rhea Miller Hall at Saginaw Valley State University.

About his programming choice, Najar explained, "Everybody knows the '3 Bs' of classical music: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, and even non-music lovers recognize the 'Ride of the Valkyries' when they hear it," so those are logical choices to represent German culture in which "music is arguably the most important art to Germans." The "3 Bs" may be household names for many classical music enthusiasts, yet fewer people are aware of twentieth-century German composers, and in particular, those from years between the two wars when traditional German musical culture was nearly completely destroyed. Najar intends to heighten listeners' awareness of these modern treasures.

The music on the first half of the concert represents such familiar concert staples as Bach Toccata in d minor, the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, a pair of Brahms Hungarian Dances, waltzes by Richard Strauss from Der Rosenkavalier and two selections by Wagner, including "The Ride of the Valkyries." The second half of the concert reflects historical realities, Najar explained. After its defeat in World War I, Germany no longer had the ability to support all of the orchestras and opera houses that it once had, and at the same time, the new American jazz and popular song styles were taking over popular taste. Kurt Weill will be represented by music from The Three Penny Opera (Mack the Knife, etc.) as will Friederich Hollaender, whose songs became instant hits, particularly after they were sung by Marlene Dietrich ("Falling in Love Again") in theater and film. "With the rise of National Socialism, many German artists left home, some forever. Their story, too, will be told here," Najar added.

The Bijou Orchestra takes its name from the Bijou Theater, one of the earliest Bay City theaters, which later became known as the Bay and eventually the State. The ensemble is composed of thirteen outstanding freelance musicians drawn from Michigan and beyond to perform in this challenging medium in which every player is a soloist. "Programming a season for The Bijou is the most rewarding planning I have ever done as a musician," Najar said. Not only are the musicians classically trained, they have the orchestration and flexibility to play in a variety of styles, including jazz styles through the early 1930s, klezmer, country, and pop. Najar celebrates the diversity of the ensemble, with its various subsets of musical interests; for example, the flutist is part of a Celtic band called Cairn to Cairn, and one of the violinists is also an oratorio tenor. "One of my goals in each season is to pull out some of those gifts in order to surprise ourselves and our audiences." This good use of diverse resources provides freshness that attracts listeners to the theater in a time when audiences for live music of many genres have continued to dwindle.

Another way to attract listeners is to bring in renowned soloists. The guest soloist for Berlin in Lights is singer Linn Maxwell, who has performed on the stages of major orchestras, opera companies, and recital halls across the United States and in 25 foreign countries. She now brings her worldwide experience and classical training to musical theater and cabaret stages. Linn has performed cabaret and one-woman shows in New York City and in March of 2006 made her European cabaret debut at the International Theater, Frankfurt, Germany. A commentator for The Frankfurter Rundschau said of her show, "Linn Maxwell captured the hope within the songs and revived a bygone era … " Ms. Maxwell will be heard in several songs, including selections from Weill's Three Penny Opera. She will also sing several songs by Friedrich Hollaender, including "Falling in Love Again," "Munchausen," and "The Ruins of Berlin."

Najar has long been known for not only his conducting skills but his ability to talk about music either during concerts or prior to them. Although he once thought that his "words might obscure listeners from having their own experience with the music,"  he has since realized his explanations have the over-riding benefit of providing people with "permission" to sit back and just listen. "I think people worry too much about what they should know about art. It's not much different from learning to appreciate fine wines or gourmet cooking. With practice comes familiarity and ultimately, knowledge and eventually, favorites are formed."

Concert-goers interested in learning more about this fascinating era will have two opportunities in advance of the concert. On Wednesday, November 18, Najar will present a talk about the cultural shifts that completely re-structured German musical life. The talk will begin at noon in room 180 in Curtiss Hall at Saginaw Valley State University. He will give a shorter version of this talk prior to Sunday’s performance in the Rhea Miller concert hall. That talk will begin at 1:15 and will take place in the Olly classroom in Curtis Hall at SVSU. Both of these talks are open to the public and free of charge.

Tickets for the concert are $10, $20, $25 and $30. Ticket information is available by calling the State Theatre Box Office at (989) 892-2660 or by calling the SVSU Box Office at (989) 964-4348 or online at Tickets will also be available at the door.

The orchestra is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Arts Midwest, the Michigan Council for the Arts and Cultural Affairs and the Bay Area Community Foundation. Major corporate sponsors include Dow Corning and the Dow Chemical Company Foundation with additional support from Bay Regional Medical Center.

© Jeanne Lesinski, 2009