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Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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To appreciate Weill piece in Symphony-Cornish program, do some alt-rock research

Seattle Symphony and Cornish College will offer a staged production of Kurt Weill's "Mahagonny" song cycle week as the closing program on its Coming to America series.

Special to The Seattle Times

Concert preview

Seattle Symphony

Weill's "The Little Mahagonny" and Bartók's "Concerto for Orchestra," 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. June 7, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $17-$95 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org).

Operatic pieces don't often get covered by the likes of the Doors, David Bowie and Bette Midler, but that's exactly what happened with Kurt Weill's "Alabama Song." Originally part of the 1927 song cycle "Mahagonny," the song was later incorporated into Weill and Bertolt Brecht's opera "The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny." Like the far more famous "Mack the Knife" from the duo's far more famous "The Threepenny Opera," "Alabama Song" (otherwise known as "Whiskey Bar") is a hummable ditty with a dark streak, featuring Weill's signature choppy phrasing and eerie minor tones. It's the perfect soundtrack for a spooky carnival funhouse.

Seattle Symphony and Cornish College will offer a staged production of Weill's song cycle later this week as the closing program on its Coming to America series, focusing on immigrant composers. I strongly recommend listening to Bowie's or Marilyn Manson's cover of "Alabama Song" on YouTube before the concert. These singers don't just sing — they embody and amplify the song's Weimar-era decadence and dissonance. The contrast between these alt-rock versions and that of mezzo-sopranos Jenny Knapp and Margaret Gawrysiak will be revealing, especially of the versatility of Weill's composing and of the original female perspective of the song.

Also on the program is Béla Bartók's exuberant "Concerto for Orchestra," composed in America by the Hungarian ethnomusicologist in a burst of optimism shortly before he died. Though it doesn't share the obvious crossover appeal of Weill's stage songs, the Concerto has remained hugely popular with audiences and critics alike since its premiere in 1943. Despite the title (a "concerto" is a piece for one or more soloists and orchestra), there is no literal soloist in this symphonic work. Instead, individual instruments play solo roles throughout the piece — the best example of this strategy being found in the well-known second movement, in which several pairs of wind instruments play variations on a folk tune.

Unlike Weill, his contemporary, Bartók was an unhappy and reluctant exile. Leaving Hungary meant leaving the source of his musical inspiration, the folk songs of Eastern Europe. Like much of Bartók's work, the Concerto pays tribute to these earthy, robust songs of everyday life and makes for entertaining listening.

Sumi Hahn: sumi@bewodo.org

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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