Josefowicz Rides a Scheherazade Roller Coaster

United StatesUnited States John Adams, Prokofiev: Leila Josefowicz (violin), Chester Englander (cimbalom), San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (conductor), Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. 24.2.2017. (HS)

John Adams: Scheherazade.2 (2015)

Prokofiev: From Romeo and Juliet (compiled by Michael Tilson Thomas)

In the original legend of “Scheherazade,” also titled “Arabian Nights,” a princess so amuses her new husband by concocting story after story that she avoids becoming his latest victim. Having executed his previous wives after their wedding nights, the sultan can’t resist one more day to learn what happens next in this wife’s compelling tales.

With its portrayal of this story, Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic poem has long been a concert hall staple. But he focused on the stories the princess tells, and  composer John Adams takes a more contemporary approach. Scheherazade.2 is more interested in exploring this extraordinary character and what he calls “the casual brutality” underlying the Scheherazade legend. The New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert debuted the piece in April 2015, and these were its first San Francisco Symphony performances, during the orchestra’s two-week celebration of Adams’ 70th birth year.

“Every classical musical listener is familiar with the outcome, how she survives,” Adams says in a program note. “But I wonder how many have stopped to ponder that the story itself is really quite horrifying.” A visit to an exhibit at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris outlined a world of misogyny and violence for Adams, and impelled him to portray a contemporary woman coping with a similar situation.

Adams’ “dramatic symphony,” a term Berlioz used for his version of Roméo et Juliette, portrays a feisty, gritty, modern woman. Over four movements she survives pursuit by angry true believers, a love scene that starts violently, a trial by a court of religious zealots and, in the finale, a daring escape.

As in the more familiar Scheherazade, a solo violin represents the protagonist, but Adams’ solo line sidesteps sinuous, cascading triplets for more daunting fare. The violinist Leila Josefowicz has the technique and the strong personality to dig into Adams’ music and let it fly. Adams wrote it for her, and she contributed many of the key technical ideas to make it work. She has performed it on 20 previous occasions, an unsually high number for a contemporary work.

From the opening notes on Friday’s performance at Davies Symphony Hall, Josefowicz and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas grabbed the audience by the lapels and did not let go until the evanescent finish, 50 minutes later. Orchestral colors of harp, fluttering winds and a cimbalom (hammered dulcimer, which infiltrates the texture throughout) create an exotic background for a violin solo line that quickly drops its sinuous opening gestures – vaguely reminiscent of Barber’s violin concerto – in favor of spikier, more hard-edged music.

The orchestra responds with its own angry chords and sonorities, creating the sort of dramatic tension that characterizes so many Romantic concertos. Dissonant, pulsing chords open the second movement, “A Long Desire,” but soon give way to sweeter sounds from both the soloist and orchestra, growing more impassioned until the opening music returns – only this time softly and gently in answer to a long, winding, expressive and stunningly gorgeous statement from the violin.

The third movement is the emotional core. “Scheherazade And The Men With Beards” trades barbed phrases between the violin, which grows increasingly agitated, and the orchestra, which responds with ever greater and more dissonant denunciations. The movement finishes with crashes and clashes that are seriously scary.

A rhythmically jagged brass fanfare kicks off the finale, a hell-for-leather torrent of notes from the soloist that approaches the perpetuum mobile frenzy of Barber’s concerto and mixes in blasts from various sections of the orchestra to delirious effect.

Josefowicz gets very little rest during all this shifting of emotional emphasis and technical challenge, but she met every test fearlessly and created one stunning moment after another. Tilson Thomas, who clearly believes in this score, revved up the orchestra to a fever pitch but never let it get close to going off the rails. It was a breathless performance all around.

Romeo and Juliet occupied the second half of the program, but rather than the aforementioned Berlioz version it was Tilson Thomas’ compilation of scenes from Prokofiev’s ballet. Debuted in 1996, a recording of it earned the first of 10 Grammy awards won by this conductor and orchestra. They know this music intimately, and it showed in a performance that was confident, supple, and rhythmically sprung.

Harvey Steiman

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