Regardless of the greatness of the compositions played and/or the expertise of the musicians, almost all classical concerts take a traditional form: come out and play with little or no extraneous props — sometimes there are some potted plants to add a little color…. The Music on the Hill series at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall continued, this time with a theatrical flair that was delightful and slightly decadent. While the first half had the appearance of your “potted plant” recital, after intermission we were presented with a circus-like extravaganza, part pre-war Berlin, part hallucinogenic 1960s.

The subtitle of this concert was “The Theater as Concert Hall — and Vice-Versa!” The period of creation of all the works played was the aftermath of World War I, when there was a brief time of great prosperity and joie de vivre before the horrors of the big one slammed most of this planet back to earth and below. The program began with the suite from L’histoire du Soldat by Igor Stravinsky. Originally written for seven players and narrator, this work was meant to be “read, played and danced.” It already had traces of the jazz influence that was being absorbed by “legit” composers, especially the French. The version heard here was an arrangement in five movements by the composer for violin, clarinet, and piano. The players were Richard Luby, Michael Votta and Wonmin Kim. Not to put down any of Stravinsky’s other monumental musical talents, but — like that old adage about real estate — the three most important things here are rhythm, rhythm, and rhythm. This trio was rockin’ and having a great time doing it. They played with that angular, pointillistic style that characterized Stravinsky’s music during that period.

From the dry, somewhat cerebral Stravinsky we moved to the lush songs of Darius Milhaud. Duke faculty pianist Jane Hawkins accompanied UNC faculty soprano Terry Rhodes in Milhaud’s Six Theater Songs. Written from 1936-38, the texts of these are a curious combination of the usual ruminations on life with surrealistic imagery. Some of Rhodes’ actions didn’t seem to match the words (possibly poor translation?), but otherwise this was a beautifully sung cycle. As we have come to be spoiled here in the Triangle region, Hawkins’ playing was refined and technically brilliant. The same duo returned for three songs from William Walton’s epic theater piece Façade, described as “an entertainment for reciter and six instruments” (but heard here, as is often the case, in a reduced version). This work went through numerous revisions, and these original “songs” were sung in a monotone. The text, by Edith Sitwell, requires a playful and imaginary spirit to perform. Rhodes was quite effective in illuminating these mini-dramas, including the final “Old Sir Faulk,” filled with old English and Welsh phrases.

The movie Cabaret helped bring the popular masses to the fun and games of 1930s Germany. Many ignored the unrelenting waves of support that greeted Hilter and enjoyed drugs, alcohol, sex and an earlier version of rock ‘n’ roll. Way before Liza had a chance to portray this debauchery, there were composer Kurt Weill and lyricist Bertolt Brecht. Their opera Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny (Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny) was a cautionary tale of a society where pleasure and money rule. This presentation consisted of three parts of this opera, called Mahagonny Songspiel. This was indeed a psychedelic like “happening” with dancers, acrobats, orchestra members wearing shawls and fezzes, and something different going on in every stage locale. Susan Klebanow conducted a small chamber group on stage that had the similar sound of Weill’s other big hit, The Threepenny Opera. An opening “aria” (as close to one that you’ll get in these spoken-type songs) is “Alabama Song,” which readers of a certain age will remember from The Doors’ first album.

Stage director Julie Fishell was able to produce an evocative and appropriate atmosphere that gave the impression of moral anarchy within the confines of what would be allowed at the state university. It is a credit to all the stage artists, musicians, actors, and singers that they were able to project this ambience in a very brief (about 40 minutes) mini-mini-opera. As in those TV shows in the ’50s and ’60s where you were not allowed to imply that crime or “bad” behavior pays, this was, for all its surface licentiousness, a cautionary tale of “too much of a good thing.” Weill scholar David Drew sums it up by writing, “The fleshpots of Mahagonny attract many visitors, but prove disappointing and expensive; God orders the inhabitants to hell, but they revolt, claiming they are there already.”