By Richard S. Ginell
John Adams: Scheherazade.2. Leila Josefowicz, violin, St. Louis Symphony, David Robertson, conductor. Nonesuch 557170-2
DIGITAL REVIEW — For John Adams, who will celebrate his 70th birthday in February, inspiration can come from figures as bizarrely unrelated as Richard Nixon, Leon Klinghoffer, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Cesar Chavez, Beethoven, and Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The latest addition to this odd assortment is the star of the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade, who is the raison d’être for a massive 2015 violin concerto – technically Adams’ third in all but name – that he calls Scheherazade.2.
Adams’ idea was to drag the long-suffering, storytelling Arabian woman into modern times, where she is pursued by “true believers” (probably Islamic fundamentalists), engages in a love scene, stands trial before a court of religious zealots who argue heatedly among themselves, and finally escapes to some kind of calm sanctuary. The piece is shaped like a four-movement symphony, with a slow second movement depicting the love scene and a scherzo-like third movement where the solo violin representing Scheherazade seems to be offering restrained rejoinders to the violent string outbursts representing the zealots.
The solo violin’s entrance at the top of the piece strikes me almost as a paraphrase of the famous motif that launches and runs through Rimsky-Korsakov’s piece of the same name (minus the .2). Yet the reminders of Rimsky end there as Adams takes us on a journey that rumbles through several regions of tough, difficult-to-map terrain in a span of over 47 minutes – longer than the Beethoven or virtually any other violin concerto.
By this time, fortified by prolonged access to some of the world’s best, most lavishly equipped orchestras, Adams has developed a style that has flowered into a complex organism that bears almost no trace of where it began four decades ago. Repetition and motor energy are out, giving way to a luxuriously orchestrated, erudite, big-thinking manner snapping at the edges of tonality. As in Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a cimbalom jangles through a good deal of the piece, giving it a tangy flavor that is close to becoming the composer’s signature at this stage of his life.
The solo violinist is the astonishing Leila Josefowicz, whose career burst out of the usual virtuoso trajectory when she took on Adams’ first violin concerto and several other challenging new works in this century. She plays this difficult, discursive piece from memory in live performance – an incredible feat in itself – and she possesses and devours it on CD. David Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony are in luscious, opulently recorded form, often asked to carry the ball themselves as the orchestra is far from being just a supporting cast in this piece.
From the evidence of Scheherazade.2 and other recent opuses, those who still insist upon labeling Adams as a “minimalist” are out of their minds.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.