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New Budapest Orpheum Society

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This local cabaret collective takes its name from the Budapest Orpheum Society, a Jewish troupe that flourished in Vienna from the early 1890s until the 1930s. The original group's brand of cabaret was just as biting, bohemian, and risque as that originating in Paris (usually regarded as the birthplace of the form), but according to Philip Bohlman, a University of Chicago musicologist and cofounder of the New Budapest, Jewish performers brought something of their own to the cabaret scenes in Vienna and Berlin: drawing from Yiddish theatrical traditions and Eastern European folk music, they developed a style that was both more provincial--that is, concerned with the day-to-day hardships of the people, rather than with the decadent demimonde of French cabaret--and more overtly political. The Budapesters made surgically deft examinations of the paradoxes, ironies, and aesthetic and ideological crises that shaped European culture between the world wars; some of their songs openly addressed the persecution of socialists and the emergence of Zionism. Bohlman sees this shift as foreshadowing the Holocaust, and he's raided the company's repertoire to compile a program called "Dancing on the Edge of a Volcano." The 11 tunes, in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and English, chart the evolution of Jewish cabaret from its rural eastern European roots to its Viennese swan song, their tone shifting along the way from satirical and cynical to sober and hopeful. The lyrics, some of which are set to melodies arranged by Stefan Wolpe, Kurt Weill, or Darius Milhaud, align themselves squarely with the working class (titles like "Viennese Coachman's Song" and "Love Song to a Proletarian Girl" are a giveaway); the most stirring numbers, Zionist odes about survival and a new future, were written in 1938. Bohlman's troupe gave its first cabaret performance less than a year ago, and so far its only other constant members are pianist-composer and cofounder Ilya Levinson, baritone-cantor Stewart Figa, and soprano-cantor Deborah Bard; the three players who'll round out the lineup here include Bulgarian-born violinist Peter Blagoev. Because the venue is a public library, cabaret ambience--the haze of cigarette smoke, the clinking of bar glasses--will be in short supply, but the New Budapesters' performance should be authentic in every other way. Admission is free. Sunday, January 6, 3 PM, Wilmette Public Library, 1242 Wilmette Ave., Wilmette; 773-442-4636.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bonnie Forkosh.

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