LA Phil Goes Dark With A Vengeance In Weimar Festival

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Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate in 1928, during the period covered by the LA Phil’s Weimar Republic Festival. (Wikipedia)

LOS ANGELES — Is there a political agenda behind the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s elaborate Weimar Republic Festival this month? It wasn’t spelled out in so many words, but in looking at the fact that it is taking place during the primary season of a presidential election year, even the most casual follower of the news couldn’t help but speculate upon a connection. Add to that the ongoing worldwide surge (scourge?) of authoritarian forces, and the allusions to a possible Weimar-like collapse of Western democracies become even more obvious.

Esa-Pekka Salonen has been on a Weimar Republic kick lately. (Katja Tähjä)

No surprise, then, that the LA Phil’s flagship multimedia concert in its Weimar festival Feb. 13 looked and felt dark, dark, dark. Our view of the Walt Disney Concert Hall pipe organ was blocked by large charcoal-gray objects that doubled as projection screens, shaped to match Frank Gehry’s designs of the building’s exterior. Black-clad members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale were tucked within the spaces between the objects. Even the hall’s usual wood music desks for the players were replaced by black metal music stands. The name of the program? “Weimar Nightfall.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen, to whom the LA Phil turns for special projects whenever he comes back as conductor laureate, came up with a hugely enterprising lineup of pieces from the period of the Weimar Republic (1918-1933). As in his Stravinsky Faith program last April, Salonen led each piece, one after the other, with no intermission and barely a pause, mostly in the dark, with the musicians shuffling unobtrusively in and out of the ensemble. There was staging by Simon McBurney — the brother of a past Salonen collaborator, musicologist/composer Gerard McBurney, who served as music consultant/dramaturge and gave the pre-concert talk. All this in the service of uniting a tripartite program where a brief one-act opera gave way to a radio requiem and a ballet in the shape of a cantata.

Paul Hindemith in 1923 at age 28. (Wikipedia)

The opera was a rarity, Murderer, Hope Of Women (1919), by the 24-year-old Paul Hindemith — then a wild, young master-craftsman out to shock. The violent plot, as laid out by German Expressionistic artist-playwright Oskar Kokoschka in his play of the same name, could not be made out simply by following his text (translated into English in surtitles), nor the action. Best to just let Hindemith’s score take its inevitable course, with its darkly colored opening full of minor-second dissonances, the relentlessly busy momentum from a large orchestra in a vein somewhat like his film music from the period. The middle section of the piece openly evokes Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and the Ring, and it all comes to a big verismo ending. The sustained vocal writing in the central scene clearly needed some Tristan-sized voices, which it got from soprano Madeleine Bradbury Rance and baritone Christopher Purves in the roles of Woman and Man. Only 25 minutes long — and itself the first of another set of three works — this is not prime Hindemith, yet it was fascinating to hear, if only once, with Salonen giving it all he’s got.

If it was possible to plunge further into the darkness, Kurt Weill’s starkly downbeat Das Berliner Requiem, allied to a morbidly pessimistic text by Bertolt Brecht, succeeded in inspiring the McBurneys to do just that. A large black scrim descended from the ceiling, upon which silent black-and-white films of a speeding train, scenes of street life in Berlin circa 1928, and ultimately the Nazis on the march were shown. Due I think to a crinkle in the scrim, the images were warped down the middle, which intentionally or not, made them look like part of a surreal dream.

Christopher Purves sang while wandering through the aisles. (christopherpurves.com)

Some of the films were tied specifically to the text, such as a Berlin canal shown during “Ballad Of the Drowned Girl;” the search for, and killing of, a dissenting fugitive in “Legend of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Triumphal Arch” accompanied by the Nazi storm troopers on film. Purves sang the second “Unknown Soldier” number movingly as he wandered through the aisles, accompanied only by an organ in harmonium mode. And the Master Chorale was in full virile cry.

Then, just like that, the scrim was swallowed up into the ceiling like a limp rag, and the space brightened up — relatively speaking — with the last major Weill-Brecht collaboration, and, I believe, the best of them all, The Seven Deadly Sins. This 1933 ballet-cantata, with its two Annas representing the split personality of its main character, can be seen as an early forerunner of today’s overuse of doppelgangers by trendy stage directors — and this performance, unlike most, featured both Annas onstage.

A scurrying cast of extras populated the stage in front of the reduced-size LA Phil while images and films of the various American cities name-checked by Brecht appeared on the gray objects in back. When they came to the Los Angeles segment (“Wrath”), the McBurneys went all-out in local color for the locals, simulating a movie shoot in the Roaring Twenties. They allowed themselves one amusing anachronism when Anna II whips out a mobile phone in the last stop in their trek, San Francisco (“Envy”), to shoot video.

Kurt Weill in 1932, a year before he fled Germany. (Wikipedia)

As Anna I, Nora Fischer — multi-styled vocalist and daughter and niece of the conducting Fischer brothers — sang the role with point and sensuality, while Anna II (actress-dancer Gabriella Schmidt) was rebellious and vulnerable, doing a fine shimmy in the “Wrath” section. The Louisiana “family” male quartet, in proletariat period dress (Purves, Jarrett Ott, Peter Hoare, and Simon Bode), bellowed their parts in “Sloth” and elsewhere in rough-hewn harmony. Salonen’s pacing was light, fast, and breezy, and the textures could have used more oomph and weight in several spots, but that may have been due to the recessed position of the orchestra at the back of the stage.

The entire journey through 15 years of German musical and cultural history managed to coalesce — starting in Expressionistic darkness, getting even darker as the shadow of National Socialism began to loom, and ending with Brecht and Weill fleeing to a love-it-hate-it vision of a capitalist America they had never seen. In addition, an exhibition of Oskar Schlemmer’s figurines for his The Triadic Ballet could be seen in BP Hall, where pre-concert talks are usually held, and other satellite musical and cultural events pertaining to the Weimar Republic would be taking place in and around Disney Hall through much of February.

There were no overt references to our times, other than an aside by a speaker just before the performance who, when talking about America as a haven for immigrants, added pointedly, “In those days.” It was up to us to fill in the blanks.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.