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Max Raabe's Palast Orchester: Timeless Elegance

When musician and acclaimed baritone Max Raabe arrived in Berlin in the mid-'80s, he was expecting to find the cabarets and variety theaters his grandmother told him about, but they were long gone. So he decided to create his own orchestra, dedicated to performing the elegant dance hits of the '20s and '30s in their original arrangements. NPR's Jackie Lyden spoke with Raabe before a performance at Lisner Auditorium in Washington, D.C.

Founded in 1986 by Raabe, the 13-piece Palast Orchester has become world-renowned for its precise and charismatic interpretations, which incorporate early jazz, ragtime, and German and American standards. After more than 20 years together, Palast Orchester has built up its repertoire to include more than 400 works, including classics such as "I'll Kiss Your Hand, Dear Lady" and "You're the Cream in My Coffee."

"There's a humor, a timeless humor in these pieces, and a timeless elegance," Raabe says. "So for me, it's not a question of nostalgia to bring these songs; it's a kind of humor, of entertaining. The most elegant pop music we ever had. And if there is a funny song, everybody gets the jokes, the spirit of the song, immediately. You don't have to explain anything. It still works, and this is one of the many reasons to bring this onstage in our times. In a modern time, in a wild time, there is an elegance on the stage that you don't find anywhere nowadays."

The ensemble's latest recording, Heute Nacht Oder Nie (Tonight or Never), features Raabe's superb singing voice, an extensive baritone that can hit the highs well into the tenor's range and drop down to low bass. He sings in a style that hasn't been heard live since WWII: Raabe sounds like Jimmy Dorsey or Paul Whiteman come back to life. He's rail-thin and elegant in a white tie and tails.

In a real sense, the 46-year-old singer has been training for this all his life. He sang in a choir as a boy in Westphalia, and on Sunday afternoons, he watched old black-and-white films on television.

"Everybody was singing in these films," Raabe says, "and so I was quite familiar with this repertoire. My grandmother always told me about these big varieties and dance bands and orchestras, and so I expected [them] when I came to Berlin, and there wasn't. And I thought, 'Berlin needs an orchestra like this.' And so I asked some students, friends of mine, because I had found some original stock arrangements, and so it starts."

Some of Raabe's most popular songs were originally performed by the Comedian Harmonists, which you might call the first boy band. The group's close harmonies were astronomically popular in the '20s and '30s, but by 1934, they had split up. The Jewish members were forced to flee Germany.

"The war ended that," Raabe says, "and the Germans by themselves ended it. Because when Adolf Hitler came to power, this kind of irony, this kind of elegance, this kind of lifestyle was gone. There was no place for irony, and most of our repertoire was written by Jewish composers. We lost this. It's a shame."

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