John Adams Conducts German Premiere of his Dramatic Scheherazade.2
Musikfest Berlin 2016  – John Adams: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Berliner Philharmoniker/John Adams (conductor), Philharmonie, Berlin, 15.9.2016. (MC)
Adams, Harmonielehre for orchestra; Scheherazade.2 – Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra
The last time I saw John Adams conduct the Berliner Philharmoniker at its Philharmonie home was in 2012 conducting a stage performance of his opera Nixon in China. Adams’ music was also played at the last Musikfest Berlin when I reported on the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas playing Absolute Jest for string quartet and orchestra. Tonight Adams was back conducting a programme of his own works including a German première.
First, one of Adam’s most celebrated works Harmonielehre for orchestra, an impressive score of minimalistic techniques combined with late-Romantic expression a product of his late 30s. Introduced by Edo de Waart with the San Francisco Symphony in 1985 the work has become one of the most popular of the second half of the twentieth century. A symphony in all but name this huge three movement score of symphonic scope took 44 minutes here in performance. Adams has taken his title from Schoenberg’s Harmonielehre the renowned textbook on harmony published in 1911 – which is rather ironic as Adams has expressed his aversion to 12 tone music. It’s certainly an impressive score and I found especially notable the first movement which opens thunderously, with pounding E minor chords repeated 39 times, inspired by a dream the composer had of driving across San Francisco Bridge seeing a huge supertanker in the bay which “suddenly took off like a rocket ship with an enormous force of levitation.” Conducting with obvious relish and steady pulse Adams created a dreamlike world full of sparkle and tremendous vibrancy.
The second half of the concert was given to Scheherazade.2 (subtitled a Dramatic Symphony for violin and orchestra). The work, which nods in the direction of Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem Scheherazade, was receiving its German première. Taking 49 minutes here to perform Adams has designed the work in four movements each given a descriptive title: Tale of the Wise Young Women; A Long Desire (Love Scene); Scheherazade and the Men with Beards and finally Escape, Flight, Sanctuary. Before Adams raised his baton he took a microphone and explained to the audience that he had been inspired to write the work after visiting an exhibition in the Museum of the Arab World, Paris detailing the Arabian Nights and the legend of Scheherazade. Adams reflected on the oppression and abuse of women in those tales and how we continue to see so many of those brutal images in the news today in the Middle East.
Scheherazade.2 was composed for violinist Leila Josefowicz who was Adam’s soloist here. A main feature throughout the work is the stormy quality of the orchestral music, often in bursts, which contrasted repetitively with light, calm and shimmering writing always mindful of not overpowering the soloist. Josefowicz took the demanding solo part in her stride playing passionately conveying a mainly yearning rather pleading quality enabling empathy with the plight of the heroine queen Scheherazade. Although not without its longueurs the score does contain amounts of drama and excitement. Towards the conclusion there was a special hymn-like quality on the strings which felt like redemption before quietly decaying away to nothing. The exceptional Berliner Philharmoniker with its usual unity clearly enjoyed playing something new and different and I especially enjoyed hearing the distinctive contribution of the cimbalom.