LOS ANGELES — Walt Disney Concert Hall was loaded with allegorical events over the final weekend in January. First, there was the latest revision of John Adams’ Gold Rush opera Girls of the Golden West, with its implied messages for today about greed, bigotry, misogyny, despoiling of the environment — ills that just won’t quit. Then, right on the heels of that came the showing of a 1924 Austrian silent film, Die Stadt ohne Juden — or The City Without Jews — with a scorching 2018-vintage score by Olga Neuwirth played live by Matthias Pintscher and the Ensemble Intercontemporain on Jan. 30. The implications here were obvious — for Austria and Europe less than a decade later, and with the recent renewed currents of anti-Semitism, for us.
Actually, The City Without Jews — filmed by Viennese director Hans Karl Breslauer after a novel of the same name by Hugo Bettauer (who for his trouble was murdered by a Nazi dental student in 1925) — strikes me as a mixed bag morally, though it’s meant to be a satire of anti-Semitism. A European city — Vienna in the novel, but changed to a fictional “Utopia” in the film — is beset by high inflation and unemployment, and the population is persuaded by the anti-Semitic Chancellor that it’s all the Jews’ fault. The Utopian Parliament votes to banish all Jews from the city, and they are herded off by railroad and on foot to a place called “Zion.”
But soon it becomes apparent that the economy cannot run at all without the Jews taking care of things — and business is shuttled off to other cities. Members of Parliament change their minds, but they are one vote short of the two-thirds needed to rescind the order, which happens when an anti-Semitic holdout in the ranks is fed alcohol and sidelined just before the final vote takes place. The Jews return, and the road to recovery begins. Yet the way they are depicted here can be taken in another way — reinforcing the dangerous old tropes that Jews are clannish and that they are all good at making money.
In any case, the film was vilified by the far right and disappeared pretty much from view after the Nazis came to power until a chance discovery of a complete nitrate print at a Paris flea market in 2015 led to its restoration — and then, Neuwirth’s score.
Most of the film is underscored by electronic rumblings or drones from a pre-recorded source, from which a mass of amplified sounds from nine acoustic and electric instruments fizz, surge, and ebb in dissonant colors and shapes for 85 minutes. Neuwirth mostly doesn’t attempt to comment on specific scenes, personalities or actions in the film, although she does get in a perfectly synchronized slap in the face, and there is a brief passage of ironically funny carnival music when the Jews are expelled. There are wisps of tonality here and there, but they are quickly submerged into the evenly contoured sound layers.
Neuwirth uses a Yamaha synthesizer for the electric piano and organ timbres, an electric guitar with occasional fuzz-tone pedal, and an electric cello alongside trumpet, trombone, clarinet, tenor saxophone, viola, and racks of percussion instruments. The score is sonically fascinating, thoroughly contemporary in tone, and, I imagine, deliberately alienated from the faded, outdated screen images of nearly a hundred years ago. It could be taken as an ominous portent of atrocities to come, or simply a cornucopia of unusual sounds to lose yourself in.
Such was the task that six members of the touring Ensemble Intercontemporain and three “guest musicians” along for the ride undertook with Pintscher, who is closing out the final year of his term as its music director. I remember the impact the EIC first made when they came to L.A. in 1986 with their founder, Pierre Boulez. The focal point of the program, as played in a gymnasium on the UCLA campus, was Boulez’s brilliant new electro-acoustic soundscape Rèpons — and when the piece was finished, there was a gasp of amazement from many of us surrounding the makeshift platform. This appearance as a backing crew for a film wasn’t quite as earth-shaking but welcome nevertheless, as we rarely see these new-music experts around these parts.
Pintscher is staying in town to lead the LA Phil in more Neuwirth — Masaot/Clocks Without Hands – along with Schoenberg’s imaginative orchestration of the Brahms Piano Quartet No. 1 (which received its world premiere here by the LA Phil in 1938 under Otto Klemperer) and Ray Chen playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. All of that takes place Feb. 3 and 4.