When composer John Bilotta was studying composition at the now-vanished Music and Arts Institute of San Francisco in Pacific Heights in the 1970s, he showed a real knack for writing contemporary art songs that set great poetry. Small wonder that Bilotta has recently immersed himself in The Kurt Weill Project, which will be performed at the Café Royale on Aug. 31.
Weill, who fled Nazi Germany in 1933, collaborated famously with Bertolt Brecht on major stage works like The Threepenny Opera – yes, that’s where “Mack the Knife” comes from – and Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Weill had the unusual distinction for composing songs that reflected his extensive classical training, yet making them popular to a wide audience. He was also drawn to the great poets.
“We’re including a Weill song in the show of his setting of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” says Bilotta. “I never thought that poem could be set to music, but Weill did it.”
As a young man just 19, Weill wrote a symphonic piece based on Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Lay of the Love and Death of Cornet Christopher Rilke. Years later when he was working Hollywood, he scored films including One Touch of Venus with Ava Gardner. The enduring part of the movie is Weill’s “Speak Low (When You Speak Love).”The lyrics are by Ogden Nash – a fact that surprises many.
Bilotta, who is playing the accordion in the show, says having an intimate encounter with Weill’s music has been enlightening for his own craft.
“Weill comes from a different tradition than I,” Bilotta’s says. He could write cabaret and music for the stage. … I am more a 12-tone writer, but Weill’s chord structure is amazing. “The Alabama Song”is an example. The way he supported the singers with his harmonies, which were very complex and sometimes atonal, really teaches me to be freer with my opera writing.”
Bilotta is also a prolific composer.
“Yes, but I am stunned by the volume of Weill’s output. And he died at the age of 50.”
Harriet March Page, also a veteran of the Music and Arts Institute, is the guiding force behind the show. Page is a terrific singer – and also a good talent when it comes to staging the shows and arranging for the next gig. The show at the Café Royale is called “Moon Floating on Water,” featuring Weill’s
moon songs, water songs and Threepenny Opera songs. It seems he was as mesmerized by the moon as he was by Lotte Lenya. He married her twice.
The Kurt Weill Project features singers Harriet March Page, Alexis Lane Jensen, Michelle Jasso, Sibel Demirmen, Molly Mahoney, Justin Marsh, and Zoltan DiBartolo. Martha Cooper is at the piano. Page has arranged for another show at the Revolution Cafe in the Mission on Oct. 15. It’s an ambitious effort and guaranteed to make any fan of Weill one satisfied customer.
The Kurt Weill Project – Moon Floating on Water: Café Royale in the Hotel Monaco, 800 Post Street (at Geary), 8 p.m.–10 p.m. No cover charge. Just speak low when you speak love.