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John Rabe gives Max Raabe an A for bringing back musical elegance

German singer Max Raabe brings back elegant music of the 1920s and 1930s with the Palast Orchester.
German singer Max Raabe brings back elegant music of the 1920s and 1930s with the Palast Orchester.
Palast Orchester/Max Raabe

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The other German kids were listening to Elton John, Kraftwerk, and Jethro Tull, but Max Raabe pulled out an old 78 from his father's collection and fell in love. The classically trained tenor now fills concert halls around the world with the sounds of the 1920s and 1930s, "the most elegant pop music we have ever had."

His repertoire includes the American songbook as well as the German, although some of the Germans — like Walter Jurmann, who wrote "San Francisco, open your Golden Gate" — wound up writing for the American songbook when they came to America to escape the Nazis.

"The music was meant to bring the audience far from any reality," Raabe says. "It's a kind of fairy tale with music."

Raabe, 50,  sings with the the Palast Orchester big band, which he founded in 1986. They've been to Southern California a few times — initially with the help of Jurmann's widow, Yvonne — but they're making their Disney Hall debut Wednesday, April 10.

Yvonne Jurmann's take on her husband's music mirrors Max's.

I knew my husband's music long before I met him. Growing up in Hungary during and after World War II, music was a refuge for me, as it was for so many during that dangerous, uncertain time. Composers of popular music wrote in a life-affirming, romantic style to counter the terrors and despair of daily life. With the future, even survival itself, so uncertain, music became one of our most important possessions. Walter ... felt that a composer lives through his music, so he never cared whether his name was in the limelight as long as his music brought pleasure to people.

Google Max Raabe and you'll find this YouTube video, and you might do a double-take. Is he on the Letterman show?

No, Raabe explains, it's Harald Schmidt, a German daily talk show host who unashamedly copied his format, set, lighting and even — apparently — Paul Shaffer from Letterman. Raabe says when Schmidt was chided about this, he replied, "Yes. Why should I change a thing which is perfect?!"

Raabe also notes that even though he and the Palast Orchester are performing dance music, nobody dances. Even when they've played fancy balls, people stop dancing, come to the stage and watch them perform.

I didn't get a chance to ask him about a rather odd new video he's posted, featuring "Mr. Green," who looks suspiciously like Kermit the Frog.

(And here's Raabe's peformance of the classic "Dream a Little Dream.")