The present is always shifting the meaning of objects in the past. John Adams’s “Scheherazade.2” is a reimagining of the Scheherazade story from a contemporary perspective. When he conceived the work, the composer later explained, he had been deeply moved by a Parisian exhibition he had seen about the “Arabian Nights” and by what he described as the “casual brutality” it showed toward women. He then took up the challenge of creating a new piece for solo violin and orchestra that would offer a contemporary image of Scheherazade as survivor, exemplified by what he called the “empowered strength and energy” of the piece’s dedicatee and first soloist, the violinist Leila Josefowicz. The premiere took place in March 2015.
Can you even remember back to March 2015? I’m not sure I can. It was before the Access Hollywood tape, before the daily debasement of our highest office, before the downfall of Harvey Weinstein, before Roy Moore, before Larry Nassar, and before the #MeToo movement began a more comprehensive process of reckoning with the entrenched legacies of patriarchy. Whatever political edge Adams had originally intended to give the work, the events of the last three years have only sharpened it. Adams is known for writing operas on subjects “ripped from the headlines,” but in this case he managed to leapfrog the news cycle altogether.
All of this would, of course, be of little consequence if the piece itself did not stand on its own as music. Yet as introduced this week in Symphony Hall by Josefowicz and conductor Alan Gilbert, former music director of the New York Philharmonic, it is indeed a compellingly ambitious, sweeping sensual score. In fact, Thursday night’s performance was a knockout. Josefowicz’s gymnastic playing demonstrated more than fearless virtuosity and commitment; it showed an internalization, an almost-physical acquiring of this music on a cellular level. When Gilbert finally lowered his baton at the end of the nearly 50-minute performance, the ovation was instant and vociferous.
Scored for a large percussion-heavy orchestra augmented by a cimbalom (here played by Chester Englander), the piece is described by Adams not as a concerto but as a “dramatic symphony.” It is divided into four movements, each built around a fantastical image or scene in the life of Scheherazade. The program is not entirely explicit but the writing has an almost cinematic vividness, and the movement titles and subtitles carry one through a narrative of the heroine’s journey, her clashes, her encounter with a lover, her condemnation by the arbiters of tradition, and her escape and attainment of at least a momentary peace.
For all its dramatic storytelling and charismatic virtuosity, the piece leaves some larger conceptual tensions unresolved. I left Thursday’s performance taken by the music, but also wondering exactly how one simultaneously trades on the exoticism of this legend (the sultry perfumed orchestra, Adams’s ranting “men in beards”) while at the same time critiquing it from within a reimagined modern frame.
The sheer pace of recent cultural changes can also cut both ways. When he wrote this work, in 2014, Adams was clearly motivated to make an artistic statement against the violence imperiling women’s lives, but I do wonder if he would approach this task in the same way today. While in some ways the #MeToo moment has only sharpened the teeth of Adams’s political message, it has also opened up larger sets of structural questions, some of which are currently rippling through the classical music world. There is now for instance more discussion than ever before about why the seasons of every symphony orchestra in the land, and even many new music festivals, are dominated by the music of male composers. Clearly when the next Scheherazade is written, it will be time for a woman to tell her own story.
Prior to the Adams work, Gilbert led a thoughtful if not particularly seductive account of Debussy’s overtly sensual ballet “Jeux.” Far more persuasive was Sibelius’s darkly brooding tone poem “En Saga,” given a wonderfully characterful performance to open the night. One Finnish writer called this music “as simple as a folk song, as gloomy as the forest primeval.” Gilbert shaped those long Sibelian paragraphs of orchestral sound with a lidded intensity, and the orchestra played superbly for him. In the tone poem’s final moments, William Hudgins held the entire hall with a lone, dusky clarinet solo. You could almost hear the icy wind blowing behind the notes.
BOSTON SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
Alan Gilbert, conductor
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