Angela Allen

PORTLAND—In patent-leather shoes and tails, every hair slicked into place, Max Raabe led two hours of wit, elegance and impeccably presented music from the ’20s and ’30s at Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall.

The Oregon Symphony sponsored “A Night in Berlin” on Feb. 24. If only our grandparents had been there! Instead, Raabe and his tuxedoed 12-person Berlin-based Palast Orchester (Palace Orchestra) charmed new generations at its Portland debut.

Never heard of these guys?

The ramrod-straight Raabe, who says it’s fun to be naughty in a tuxedo, has a campy side. He performed at Marilyn Manson’s wedding. He wrote the Britney Spears song, “Oops, I Did It Again.”

Raabe has far more credentials than those.

At 47, he has fronted his band for 22 years and performed for those unimpressed by fly-by-night popular culture. Adding to his high-end Continental entertainment appeal, he is a preservationist of “the most elegant pop music we ever had,” he says. His repertoire of ’20s and ’30s tunes will remain in the European and American songbooks.

Raabe and the Palast Orchester have a shtick, though you can’t quite label it. They don’t do jazzy conversational riffs, or big-band orchestral playing, or kitschy cabaret. They don’t sit throughout the entire concert, like the Lawrence Welk guys. They throw in humor and a little slapstick (not too much) such as when the percussionist Vincent Riewe knocked down the chimes one by one, or the entire orchestra performed a tune with bells.

They mix it up, ping-ponging tunes from Europe and America, transporting us from everyday ho-hum life as cabaret music did decades ago in the fraying Weimar Republic. Foxtrots, tangos, rumbas, played with verve and precision, could pull even the most cynical back to the good parts of the tough days.

With big ears and a graceful body that moved from mike to piano (where he leaned, not played) and back again to the spotlight, Raabe resembles a dapper big-eared Fred Astaire with a much better voice. His baritone moved easily into the tenor range and his speaking voice dropped to bass. He introduced every song – about two dozen of them– often with a clever remark in his mock-haughty German accent.

Raabe doesn’t own full-blown operatic chops, though he was trained in opera, or Frank Sinatra/Kurt Elling lyric virtuosity, but he convincingly crooned Kurt Weill’s and Bertholdt Brecht’s “Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar.” He did a campy take on “Just a Gigolo,” adapted from an Austrian song in the late ’20s (and made even more famous by Bing Crosby). He charmed the audience with Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” and Cole Porter’s “Miss Otis Regrets.” “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” proved a crowd-pleaser, but the hot-blooded speedy version of “Avalon” drew the most applause. He sang a number of German tunes as well – auf Deutsch, of course.

Raabe was the big cheese but his versatile orchestra was as polished as its members’ shoes. Almost everyone, all men except the violinist, played at least two instruments, and several members sang a couple of times with Raabe. Jorn Ranke played trombone and viola as well as sang. Bernd Hugo Dieterich picked the bass and blew the sousaphone, and Ulrich Hoffmeier did magic on the guitar, banjo and violin.

Violinist Cecilia Crisafulli, in a backless red gown, emerged as almost a centerpiece (hard to trump the suave Raabe). She is “the queen,” as Raabe says, and she takes the lead after Raabe on curtain calls. Palast has always had a female violinist, and it does add spark (and sparkles).

The most amazing thing? Nobody is directing. There is no maestro. They are so well rehearsed and grooved, who needs it?

The group would have been just as or more impressive in a smaller venue, with my grandparents dancing on the floor.