The rectangular hall is a gilded jewel box from a forgotten era, but bereft of sparkle.

Swirling cornices are faded gold, the oak wainscoting chipped. The musty ceiling seems like a slice of wedding cake kept from nuptials long past.

Straight rows face the raised stage. Herr Bohlman enters from a side door and slips past the players.

The music begins, but the strings feel sharp and harsh. It’s a familiar melody — strains of Wiener Blut, or Viennese Blood, by Johann Strauss Jr. (1825-1899), the waltz king who certainly had it. But Bohlman, more spieler than singer, sneers a strange, unsettling lyric.

Wiener Duft, Wiener Duft,
Ja, das liegt halt bei uns in der Luft

Fifth in a series: Exploring ties between the CSO’s hometown and cities on its 2014 European tour

Tonight in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, at the fittingly named DANK Haus cultural center, the smells and odors of Vienna really do seem to hang in the air — just as Leo Strauss parodies in Aus der Familie der Sträusse, or From the Strauss Family, a resigned Theresienstadt memory from a composer with a different type of Viennese blood. This latter Strauss (1897-1944) reflects from his concentration camp in three-quarter time (here translated into English):

The Goldener Saal inside Vienna’s Musikverein, where the Chicago Symphony is performing on tour.

The Goldener Saal inside Vienna’s Musikverein, where the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is performing on tour.

There are so many composers,
All of them with the name, Strauss
Some of them are Jews, some Christians,
All with the same name, Strauss

Vienna’s famed Musikverein — the CSO’s final stop on its 2014 European tour  — evokes a romantic, imperial, almost imagined sense of nostalgia. If concerts in its vibrant, polished Goldener Saal recall Austria’s 19th-century musical triumphs, this tough little shoebox on Chicago’s North Side confronts the darker challenges of Vienna’s 20th century.

New Budapest Orpheum Society, the rough court musicians at the DANK Haus saal this evening, dedicates itself to an overlooked legacy: what Philip Bohlman, the ensemble’s artistic director, proudly calls “Jewish cabaret.”

Anything Herr Professor Bohlman finesses in singing he more than returns in scholarship, as he scours Vienna’s libraries for censored songs and satires. Bohlman, an ethnomusicologist and Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor in the University of Chicago’s Department of Music, heads New Budapest Orpheum, a crack squad of eight local singers and musicians who share his commitment and vision.

New Budapest Orpheum Society’s Julia Bentley performs at the Dank Haus, which recalls the Goldener Saal in Vienna's Musikverein.

New Budapest Orpheum Society’s Julia Bentley performs at DANK Haus, in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, which recalls the Goldener Saal in Vienna’s Musikverein.

The original Budapester Orpheum Gesellschaft, a loose-knit cabaret ensemble that faded with the Hapsburg Empire in World War I, was Viennese, not Hungarian. The eastern exoticism of the next town over, a mere 150 miles down the Danube, fascinated the cadre of Jewish composers and parodists who made Vienna their professional home.

“Nothing from Vienna is from Vienna. This is something you have to understand,” explains Bohlman, speaking of goulash, the meaty Hungarian staple, but stews can be musical, too. “What Vienna seems to be, it’s not really Vienna. It comes from elsewhere. And it comes together in Vienna, and that’s why it’s the great city of cabaret.”

In the 1920s, a Jewish Budapester who had made his way to Vienna, composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953), spied “elsewhere” nearly 5,000 miles away, in an exotic town he had yet to visit — Chicago.

Kálmán “was really interested in the whole question of minority, what we would call today ‘multi-culturalism,’” Bohlman says, and the bustling city that the composer imagines in his 1928 operetta Die Herzogin von Chicago, or The Duchess of Chicago, is far from the bleak sobriety of DANK Haus, in a building finished the year before.

New Budapest Orpheum’s Julia Bentley sweeps to the floor for “Wir Ladies aus Amerika,” Kálmán’s comical Teutonic take on what Chicago women want. If the mezzo’s festive German were to roll off in English:

We ladies from America
Now and again attract lovers!
We also dream of love and fortune,
Inflamed by sweet drinks and music!
We glow as hot as fire with jazz and saxophone
And dream to the banjo’s sweet sound

This was the era of Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), his Hot Five and Hot Seven recordings in Chicago. “Chicago was known as the place were jazz was happening by the late 1920s,” Bohlman recounts, “and Chicago is playing an incredible role here — and [Kálmán] puts it together here in an entirely new sound. And that’s what’s important about [The Duchess of Chicago] is that it’s really a collection of jazz pieces that then are sort of fitted into this mold of a Viennese operetta style, which entirely accommodates it.”

The so-called Silver Age of Viennese operetta — the gold medal goes to the prior generation’s Johanns and Strausses — pushes another decade past 1928. New Budapest Orpheum explores this era before the 1938 Anschluss, when Nazi Germany annexed Austria, and Jewish cabaret’s diaspora, in the new recording “As Dreams Fall Apart: The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music 1925-1955.” 

“As Dreams Fall Apart” isn’t limited to Vienna or even Europe — at DANK Haus I can’t stifle a cough during the first part of “Erlekh Zayn,” or “Be Virtuous,” a Second Avenue Yiddish ditty by Boris Thomashefsky (1866-1939); still the band plays on. (CSO audiences learned last November that Thomashefsky’s grandson, the patronym- and lozenge-tossing conductor Michael, is less forgiving.) But the fortunes of Viennese composers like Kálmán and Erich Korngold (1897-1957), who both reached the United States, plus a host of less familiar names, remain central to New Budapest Orpheum’s work.

After 1938, few Jewish artists steeped in cabaret fared as well as Kálmán and Korngold. Bohlman knows, his German intoning tonight’s epitaph — the final verses of Leo Strauss’ futile hopes from Theresienstadt (translated):

Though they’ve driven me
Away from my home,
To me, Vienna remains
A bouquet of flowers still today

Just one last visit,
Before it’s all gone,
Just one last time to see Vienna,
Just once in May

In Vienna’s Golden Age, Strauss songs finish with champagne and celebration. New Budapest Orpheum is Chicago’s stinging reminder that Strauss songs from Vienna’s Silver Age end at Auschwitz.

Andrew Huckman is a Chicago-based lawyer and writer. 

TOP: Philip Bohlman, at the piano, is joined by members of New Budapest Orpheum Society.