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Weimar Comes to Los Angeles in All Its Dark Splendor

February 18, 2020

Los Angeles Philharmonic

For the past two weeks, Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have been delving deeply and darkly into the artistic and political strata of the Weimar Republic — that tumultuous period in German history that emerged in 1918 with the end of World War I and flourished in all its decadent splendor (and ever-increasing inflation) until 1933, when it all came crashing down with the rise of Adolf Hitler.

The festival’s highlights have included memorable performances, illuminating exhibits, even a decadent Berlin-style cabaret at a tiny, prohibition-era Hollywood hideout where Sally Bowles would have felt right at home.

Originally intended as part of the LA Phil’s 100th anniversary season, the programs conceived by Salonen (in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and curator Stephanie Barron) began on Feb. 7 with a concert that traced the transitional roots of the Weimar years. Carolin Widmann was the featured soloist in Kurt Weill’s 1924 Violin Concerto followed by a panoramic rendition of Paul Hindemith’s Symphony: Mathis der Maler, a work that premiered in 1934 (with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by Wilhelm Furtwängler) and a month later was banned by the Nazis.

The final event provided a decidedly more theatrical climax. Appropriately titled Weimar Nightfall, the concert began with a minimal staging of Hindemith’s quintessentially German expressionist 1919 one-act opera, Murderer, Hope of Women, to a text by Oskar Kokoschka. The 20-minute piece for full orchestra and eight singers presents an unusual fusion of musical and psychological influences merging post-World War I modernism with the pre-war Romantic chromaticism of Wagner.

Soprano Madeleine Bradbury Rance sang the role of the “Woman” who comes to the aid of a wounded warrior (think Tristan) who is accompanied by his band of henchmen (all in contemporary dress). The Man was sung by baritone Christopher Purves. After recovering from his wounds, he is kept in a tower where he falls under the Woman’s alluring spell. But instead of reciprocating her love, he betrays her, and the Woman is brutally raped and murdered, presenting a nightmarish blend of mythological abstraction and violet sexual obsession. 

Despite its title there is nothing religious about Weill’s 1928 Das Berliner Requiem. Set to preexisting texts by Brecht for two male voices (Purves and tenor Peter Hoare) and full chorus, the work was originally created to be performed on the radio. Its five cantata-like settings paint a grim portrait of a postwar Germany where people may be betrayed and killed and then forgotten. Some of the work is specifically about the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg, who was killed by Freikorps soldiers, her body thrown into a nearby canal in 1919. On the 10th anniversary of the end of the war, massive monuments were being erected to the Unknown Soldier, an act Brecht saw as attempting to gloss over the war’s horror; Brecht’s criticisms caused some of the commissioning radio stations to cancel the piece, and its premiere was delayed until 1929. This was its first performance by the LA Phil. 

Throughout the work, the music changes dramatically, at times haunting and lyrical, then frenetic and march-like, then dark and brooding. The sense of time was illustrated by projections of grainy black and white film showing Hitler’s rise to power.

It all led up to the performance of The Seven Deadly Sins, a one-act dance/opera composed in Paris by Brecht and Weill in 1933, after they had fled Germany. It was their last collaboration.  

In the opera, Anna I (the dynamic actress and bright-voiced soprano Nora Fischer) along with her dancing alter ego Anna II (Gabriella Schmidt), set out on a seven state, sin-by-sin travelogue of America (a country neither Brecht or Weill had ever visited).

The sisters’ goal is to raise enough money to build their parents a little house s on the banks of the Mississippi in Louisiana. Each of the seven states they visit adds complications to their goal while illustrating the succession of the deadly sins. Anna I, the practical one, exploits her sister, forcing her to become a stripper, a conniving hustler, a Hollywood starlet, and an opportunistic gold digger.

The concert was performed as three connected acts with a consistent visual scheme and no intermission. Moving from one piece to the next, Salonen illuminated a wide range of musical expression from Wagnerian vastness to ragtime bounce. The powerful role for the chorus (particularly in the Requiem) was sung with real dramatic intensity by the members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The stage direction by Simon and Gerard McBurney made the most of the limited stage and was accentuated by the clean-lined choreography of Leah Hausman. The bunker-like scenic elements that hung above the stage and served as projection surfaces, as well as the period-evoking costumes, were by Anna Fleischle. The grainy black and white projections were by Will Duke. 

In addition to being one of the cities the two Annas visit, Los Angeles also became the city where Brecht, and Kokoschka, along with Arnold Schoenberg and the English writer Christopher Isherwood (whose Berlin Stories would become the musical Cabaret), lived — only a few miles from the Walt Disney Concert Hall where their creations were being celebrated.

It was never overtly stated, but the unspoken message that rang loud and clear was, “Beware! It’s happening again.”

Jim Farber wrote his first classical music review in 1982 for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Since then, he has been a feature writer and critic of classical music, opera, theater, and fine art for The Daily Variety, the Copley Newspapers and News Service, and the Los Angeles Newspaper Group (Media News).