Saying there was no love lost between Bertolt Brecht and Los Angeles is putting it mildly. Other exiles from Hitler’s Germany, from Arnold Schoenberg to logician Rudolf Carnap, found niches here, but the archleftist dramatist found everything about the city venal and enervating — even its beauty. “In his letters home, he’d write, ‘I can’t stand the house I live in, it’s too nice,’” says Weba Garretson, vocalist of L.A.-based Brecht interpreters the Eastside Sinfonietta. (Looking over Echo Park from the back patio of the home-plus-studio Garretson shares with her husband, recording engineer Mark Wheaton, you can see Brecht’s point.)
After several fruitless years of pitching unproducible movie treatments, and an appearance before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Brecht returned to Europe in 1945. But not before exacting revenge in The Hollywood Elegies, seven poems written in English and set to music by Hanns Eisler. Two appear on the Sinfonietta’s remarkable new CD, Don’t Be Afraid (True Classical). “Hollywood” is a placid but dissonant anti-hymn (“For the unsuccessful, paradise itself serves as hellfire”), while in “Swamp” — inspired by prosperous but morphine-addicted fellow émigré Peter Lorre — Brecht watches “the friend I loved the most” sink into the muck wearing a “ghastly, blissful smile.”
In the hands of Garretson and company, these 60-year-old art songs sound not just relevant but revelatory, yanked into the present by Tracy Wannamoe’s soprano sax and Jason Payne’s sharp-angled drumming. The bitter material has an obvious attraction for these seasoned players, who have paid the bills backing everyone from Macy Gray to Rufus Wainwright. According to keyboardist and co-producer Joseph Berardi, “Those songs sum up the experience of every artist I know here who’s trying to do something that’s not part of the company line. It still applies.”
Aside from works written with Eisler, including the bouncy Das Kapital rewrite “Supply and Demand,” Don’t Be Afraid focuses on Brecht’s briefer, more celebrated collaboration with Kurt Weill during the late-’20s heyday of Weimar Berlin. Garretson, a veteran of new wavers the Pearls and the performance-art troupe Shrimps, first assembled Payne, Berardi and double-bassist Ralph Gorodetsky for a single performance in 1998, at the invitation of West Coast Brecht Centennial organizer David Catanzarite. “We were like a garage band writing new material. We had to feel like the music was our own, because we’re not classically trained musicians reading down charts.” (Wannamoe signed on after seeing the then-quartet at the Goethe-Institut.)
This DIY approach to the Brecht-Weill catalog served the group’s needs, until they were asked to participate in MOCA’s 2000 staging of 1929’s Happy End, B&W’s hastily conceived follow-up to the internationally successful The Threepenny Opera. The high-profile production caught the attention of Weill’s estate, which insisted on the composers’ original orchestrations. “We were told, ‘You have to learn the music as it’s supposed to be done,’” Garretson recalls. “And you have three weeks.” After compromises on both sides, the show went on with an expanded lineup.
The Sinfonietta’s forced march through modernist counterpoint may have been painful, but the studio versions of the Happy End songs are stronger for it. For Berardi, “Once we were inside those arrangements, there were elements that were too beautiful not to use.” Take “Bilbao Song,” one of several that set a sentimental melody alongside — at times smack on top of — jarring, tango-derived rhythms. The band attacks the song more aggressively than “legit” (Garretson’s term) players would dare, but the way the horn arrangement grows lusher with each chorus — thanks to Wannamoe’s man-of-all-reeds overdubbing — is unadulterated Weill. On the Brechtian low-comedy side, the jacked-up tempos of “Mandelay Song” and “Ballad of the Lily of Hell” hint at the artful thrashing the Sinfonietta gives them live.
But Garretson shows her deepest personal connection in her intimate reading of “Surabaya Johnny,” a torch song to end all torch songs. Converting the narrator’s rage into something like acceptance, she nearly whispers the choruses: “You’ve got no heart, Johnny . . . but I still love you so.” Garretson explains, “When I do the song, I’m thinking about the different Surabaya Johnnies in my own life. By the third verse, I’m thinking about my relationship with my father.” That this interpretation holds its own against formidable — and often angrier — recordings by Marlene Dietrich, “legit” soprano Teresa Stratas and the composer’s wife, Lotte Lenya, is a tribute not just to Garretson, but to Brecht and Weill themselves.
The Eastside Sinfonietta plays at the Echo on Tuesday, August 12, at 8 p.m., and at Amoeba Music on Saturday, August 9, at 2 p.m.