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Music review: Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester

February 18, 2010 | 12:00 pm

It's the sound of romance. Horns sing with reeds and strings, seeming to set the very air dancing to the rhythms of waltzes, fox trots and pasodobles. A man, dressed impeccably in tie and tails, steps up to a mike and, in a focused, rounded falsetto, completes the close, perfect harmony.

This could be a musical interlude from a 1930-vintage movie, but for a couple of days this week, it is the past as brought back to life by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, visiting Southern California at the beginning of a U.S. tour that will take them to Carnegie Hall. Wednesday they were at the Irvine Barclay Theatre; Thursday they drop in at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Raabe, in his Rudy Vallee-like voice, and his band have been performing in Berlin for more than two decades, and since 2001 they've traveled here to woo Southern California. Those who haven't caught them live have perhaps encountered them on YouTube, where their gorgeous re-creation of the 1920s and early '30s has been extended to include mock Jazz Age renditions of such present-day hits as "Lady Marmalade" and "Oops ... I Did It Again."

"A Night in Berlin," the program that Raabe and the 12 instrumentalists are performing locally, sticks to songs written mostly around 1930 -- songs that speak of love yearned for and found. Or that speak, perhaps, of a gorilla in a villa in the zoo.

This last is an example of the sort of German novelty number that Raabe and his compatriots present alongside such better-remembered tunes as "Just a Gigolo," "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" or, a song they perform to absolute perfection: "Cheek to Cheek."

Another of the German songs performed Wednesday translates, according to Raabe, as: "Last summer my heart was under great duress when I saw Rosa in her swimming dress."

Tall, lean Raabe, with hankie flowering from his breast pocket like a boutonniere, performs this -- as he performs all numbers -- standing stock-still at the mike, his face expressionless. You have to look closely for those rare occasions when an eyebrow arches ever so slightly or his eyes pan slowly from side to side. It's hard to say just how serious he's being. The orchestra members, a bit more rambunctious, cue us in to the fun as, singly and in groups, they pop up from their seats to take the lead on a melody, forming patterns across the bandstand -- or as they conjure hand bells to brightly augment the sound.

Singing sometimes in German but often in English, Raabe floats notes -- downy, vibratoless -- in the air. Muted horns are heard from what seems far away, across time. We are in a nightclub somewhere in Weimar-era Berlin, just before things go to heck. We half expect to spot Christopher Isherwood scribbling away in a corner while Sally Bowles hunts the crowd for sugar daddies. The air dances. The world is in love.

-- Daryl H. Miller

"A Night in Berlin," Royce Hall on the UCLA campus. 8 p.m. Thursday. $32 to $75. (310) 825-2101 or

Photo: Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester at the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Credit: Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times