Before the second half of last Friday’s concert at Disney Hall began, a group of protesters unfurled a large banner severely impugning the current head-of-state to rousing cheers. It was of a piece with the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s provocative (if sometimes myopic) retrospective The Weimar Republic: 1918 – 1933, presented under the direction of its conductor laureate, Esa-Pekka Salonen. The music of Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill comprised the bulk of the program, each of them tentative modernists who under pressure from authorities (and the public) would subsequently beat a retreat from the brashness of their youth.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
© Benjamin Suomela

Hindemith’s Ragtime (well-tempered) from 1921, a knotty take on the C minor fugue from Book 1 of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, displayed the Teutonic enfant terrible in full cry. Salonen unleashed its zig-zagging counterpoint clashing against Jazz Age rhythms with vertiginous precision and steely attack.

Only 15 years later and the listener finds themselves deep into Hindemith’s “back to Bach” trip. His symphony extracted from his 1935 opera Mathis der Maler finds the Roaring '20s iconoclast in the process of becoming venerable 20th-century institution. One could quibble whether the score merited inclusion – it had been composed after the demise of Germany’s brief interwar democracy. Presumably its plot of artist struggling against his repressive times (as well as its composer’s own grappling against Nazi authorities) was deemed a fitting parallel for those whose ears are ever-readily attuned to the crypto-fascist rumblings of our own times.

Salonen is no stranger to the work, having made a finely balanced recording with the same orchestra over 20 years ago. His performance on Friday, however, put that achievement well into the pale, demonstrating not only the enormous strides in the Philharmonic’s virtuosity, but also in Salonen’s mastery on the podium. Their unity of execution and at times unexpectedly vehement expressive power would make it hard to guess that he ever left Los Angeles in search of new frontiers.

Weill’s Concerto for Violin and Winds was a strange and fascinating mixture of his teacher Ferruccio Busoni’s “young classicism,” as well as his own fascination with American-style popular music. In her role as soloist, Carolin Widmann eloquently collaborated in this chamber-like score that could have very well have been the soundtrack for Dr Mabuse’s shadowy underworld. Weaving in and out of winds, basses, and percussion, she deftly articulated this work’s spectral dialogues, sometimes bantering playfully, sometimes hissing sinisterly. In the central movement’s nocturnal duet between violin and flute, she and associate principal flautist Catherine Ransom Karoly seemed to draw the movement of the moon and stars in the concerto’s long night to a virtual standstill.

Arnold Schoenberg, the spiritus rector of the Second Viennese School, was briefly let in the hall, albeit under the watchful gaze of Johann Sebastian Bach. His arrangements of two of the Baroque composer’s chorale preludes, although a product of the Weimar era, were hardly representative of their time and place, to say nothing of Schoenberg’s legacy. Both of these fulsomely scored orchestrations seemed to gaze back to the pre-Versailles pomp of the Wilhelmine era. Nevertheless, Salonen’s direction of these was a faultless display of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s excellence, carefully balancing inner detail within the scope of the whole. Still, Schoenberg’s exclusion was an inadvertent reminder that a century later Weimar modernism continues to rankle the reactionaries of our day.