When one sees the word “Erotica” in connection with classical music, one is usually safe in assuming that it’s a misprint in the title of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. And yet, at the Australian Chamber Orchestra’s concert on Saturday, it was no Freudian slip: Erwin Schulhoff’s Sonata Erotica, which the composer suggestively marked “nur für Herren” (for men only), was on the program. Think of the famous diner scene from the film When Harry met Sally, and you’ll have the gist of the piece: a few minutes of unaccompanied female orgasmic noises. As performed by the cabaret artist Meow Meow, it was as much comedy as aural titillation: page turns were dramatised into hilarious events, the gales of laughter permitting release from the residual embarrassment of hearing such intimate sounds in a public setting.

Meow Meow © Karl Giant
Meow Meow
© Karl Giant

But (to coin a term) is that what I call music? Perhaps not, but then again this concert was about so much more than “just” music. The theme was Weimar Cabaret, and the concert captured well the variety of the art form as it existed in Berlin before Hitler. There were many tuneful numbers, most of which were jazz influenced, as well as other, more experimental fare. This reflects the fact that Weimar Germany was arguably “the last great cultural laboratory wherein the realms of so-called ‘popular’ and ‘classical’ music routinely informed and inspired one another”, as Peter Tregear wrote in his excellent program notes. Some of the composers featured here, like Hindemith and Weill, are relatively well known today. Other figures have languished in (perhaps undeserved) obscurity. This was thus a rare opportunity to sample music by Jaroslav Ježek, Wilhelm Grosz and Paul Abraham, to name three I’d never previously encountered (although under the name Hugh Williams, Grosz had left his mark: he wrote the popular song “The Isle of Capri”).

Calling this an ACO concert was somewhat misleading, as only five players from the usually core string section were present (the double bass was moved from his usual location on the far right to centre stage, reflecting the instrument’s centrality in this repertoire). There were lots of supplementary woodwind and brass players, plus a number of nightclub-appropriate resources: percussion, guitar, accordion, banjo and piano. Many of the arrangements were by Iain Grandage, and contained some nicely imaginative touches: for instance, in Hanns Eisler’s An den kleinen Radioapparat (“To the little radio”), there were some air-raid siren noises appropriate to the story of a forced exile listening to news of war victories from back home. The variety in the program required a matching versatility from the musicians: at times, players were required to sing, burst paper bags, and (in Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue) chant place names in tight, contrapuntal rhythms. As in other recent ACO concerts, Satu Vänskä (a principal violinist) got to sing something, and Richard Tognetti (the artistic director) had a chance to show off another electronic violin-like instrument: in this case, something that looked the offspring of a liaison between a Wagner tuba and a monochord. His duet on a conventional violin with pianist Benjamin Martin (Grosz’s Jazzband) was particularly enjoyable.

However, the two star turns of the night were from Barry Humphries, credited in the program as theConférencier (that’s Master of Ceremonies to you and me), and Meow Meow. Their interactions were particularly delightful, especially the mildly risqué duet “Mousie”. Compared with Joel Grey’s legendary performance as MC in the film Cabaret, Humphries was urbane rather than impish, but his debonair wit matched the occasion perfectly, whether clad in a green smoking jacket, or in black silk pyjamas. Meow Meow was compelling from start to finish, and evoked an impressive range of emotions from broad comedy to heartbreaking tragedy. Pirate Jenny from Weill’s The Threepenny Opera showcased her storytelling abilities, perfectly complemented by her slightly husky, expressive voice (like many of the performers, she was miked). As is customary in this performing style, singing was intimately linked with movement, and she made the tiny vacant space downstage seem larger than it was, for which credit must also go to director Rodney Fisher. The club-like atmosphere was furthered by the dim red lighting, and the players were dressed in fedoras, dark suits and other era-appropriate clothing. Describing a show as “unmissable” may be hyperbolic, but this was a genuinely wonderful evening of inventive artistry: go see it if you possibly can.