By Susan Elliott
NEW YORK — When John Adams describes his inspiration for Scheherazade.2, which he aptly subtitles “Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra,” he recalls an exhibition he visited in Paris about the Scheherazade legend. It got him thinking, he writes in the program note, about “The casual brutality toward women” — then and now — and “the many images of women oppressed or abused or violated that we see today in the news on a daily basis.”
Scheherazade, as the legend goes, saved her own life by telling new stories each evening to the Shah, who had a nasty habit of marrying a virgin every day, sleeping with her that night, and then having her killed the next morning. But after hearing 1,001 of Scheherazade’s tales, the Shah finally spared her life. Through her own wit, she was able to outsmart the misogynistic system.
As premiered March 26 by the New York Philharmonic under music director Alan Gilbert, Scheherazade.2 is a formidable work, already scheduled for repeated hearings from its co-commissioners, the Royal Concertgebouw and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Its theatricality, size, and length — about 45 minutes — add up to the “dramatic symphony” description. This is no simple violin concerto, but a story of one woman’s heroic efforts to stay alive in a hostile world.
Adams’ Scheherazade is violinist Leila Josefowicz, a longtime friend and collaborator for whom he wrote the piece. Her part is indeed heroic, not to mention tortuously challenging, but she handled it with electrifying power and verve. She is the David to the orchestra’s Goliath, but also the beautiful “Wise Young Woman” of the first movement; the lover of the second, “A Long Desire (Love Scene)”; the victim of the third, “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards”; and the victor of the fourth, “Escape, Flight, Sanctuary.” Adams insists Scheherazade.2 is not programmatic, but rather based on a series of images — perhaps a distinction without a difference, but either way, this is highly theatrical writing. Call it an opera for violin.
The roles Scheherazade traverses, from clever seductress to sensuous lover to persecuted victim, unlikely warrior, and free woman, are everywhere in the score, characterized by a sense of restless, relentless momentum interrupted by occasional passages of graceful lyricism. Motifs travel back and forth across the orchestra as the Men with Beards argue among themselves, only to unite against Scheherazade and condemn her with an emphatic thud from the bass drum.
Rhythmically, there are traces of minimalism, but otherwise Adams’ music is tumultuous, quixotic, and hugely colorful, with sharp elbows at one end and shimmering strings at the other. Often he pairs the violin with the pungent sound of the cimbalom (played by Chester Englander), which figures prominently throughout the piece, especially at the beginning of the fourth movement. There, the soloist continues to explode in high relief, while the orchestra sounds tamed, muted by comparison, with tonal, vertical, chordal harmonies. Add Scheherazade.2 to Adams’ list of topical explorations unafraid to speak the truth while persuasive in their beauty.
At the quiet ending, Gilbert held his arms up for silence and got it, followed by an enormous explosion of applause, especially for Josefowicz who, playing from memory, bared her soul. Kudos to the orchestra as well; this was an especially well-prepared first performance of an often thorny work and Gilbert had clearly done his homework, his baton-less hands maintaining a solid, sturdy base.
Gilbert is not noted for distinctive interpretations of familiar scores. Perhaps this is one reason he is so drawn to new music, which, because of its unfamiliarity, is often a challenge to pull off with any polish. He simply let the music speak (and scream, cry, howl, murmur, etc.) for itself. Gilbert also programmed wisely, preceding Scheherazade.2 with two other image-inspired scores: Stravinsky’s Petrushka, in its original 1911 version, and Anatoly Lyadov’s The Enchanted Lake.
The former, by its quixotic nature, sumptuous orchestral color, and rudely interruptive blasts from the brass, made a suitable companion to Scheherazade.2; the orchestra played it superbly, despite Gilbert’s tendency to let more than a few opportunities for inner detail get swallowed up in the wall of sound. The Enchanted Lake, rightly described as a miniature, is a pastel-colored delicacy that holds promise of traversing more serious territory but, at only six minutes, lent just a taste of what was to come.
Susan Elliott, former classical music and dance critic for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, is the editor of MusicalAmerica.com.