John Adams’ new Violin Concerto is dramatically compelling.
JOHN ADAMS: Scheherazade.2 – Leila Josefowicz, v./ St. Louis Sym./David Robertson – Nonesuch 557170, 47:35 ****:
One of the characteristics that is so endearing about John Adams’ music is that it reflects the variety of emotional and intellectual Zeitgeist of our times. It can be deep and profound (The Wound Dresser), humorous (Lollapalooza), comment on politics (Nixon in China), or make a statement about a societal issue. He has showed a previous interest in portraying events from a women’s perspective—his oratorio El Nino expresses the Nativity from a women’s point of view. “How could you tell this story in the year 2000 and not have a woman’s voice?” he exclaimed.
In his new violin concerto, Scheherazade.2, Adams uses the story of Scheherazade in the tales of the Arabian Nights to express his anger at violence against women in today’s culture. In 2013 the composer saw an exhibit in Paris at the Arab World Institute about the history of the “Arabian Nights” collection of folk stories. Scheherazade was forced into a marriage with a Persian king who seduced a virgin each night and executed her the following morning. Scheherazade’s clever stories delayed her death, but Adams was shocked by the casual brutality of the other women’s stories. “We see examples [of violence against women] from everywhere in the world including our own country and even on our own college campuses,” he exclaims. In Scheherazade.2 he creates a woman who is beautiful and fearless in the face of oppression.
This 50-minute dramatic symphony (after Rimsky-Korsakov’s famous symphonic poem) traces the story of the heroine (embodied by violin soloist) in its four movements. It’s not a literal musical story, but the title of each of the four movements suggests a narrative drama. “Tale of the Wise Young Woman – Pursuit by the True Believers” starts with a harp and cimbalom (we’re in the Middle East) impressionistically reflecting on her beauty and sultry eroticism. A feisty violin engages the orchestra in alternatively combative/seductive dialogue, as she uses guile and grit to attract and escape from her suitors.
Shards of anxiety begin “A Long Desire (Love Scene)” that gives way to an uneasy connection between lovers. The ever-present cimbalom and low brass (Wagnerian overtones) question the romance. The violin sings sweetly, but there’s always an anxious undertone. A brief argument interrupts the love scene, but it continues…only to be interrupted suddenly as “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards” break the spell. Scheherazade is tried by a court of religious zealots. A violent confrontation ensues, “during which the men argue doctrine among themselves and rage and shout at her only to have her calmly respond to their accusations.” There’s two violent orchestral outbursts as a wounded Scheherazade flees the confrontation.
“Escape, Flight and Sanctuary” portrays the suspense, chaos and struggle of Scheherazade’s getaway. Josefowicz’s virtuosity, dissonant orchestral chords, the strident brass and percussive thumps create Scheherazade escape and flight. Finally, sanctuary is achieved: strings exult, the violin sings over the pensive notes of the cimbalom and fades off…
I first heard Scheherazade.2 in a live performance last spring at a concert of the Los Angeles Philharmonic with Leila Josefowicz and Adams conducting. Watching her facial and body movements added to the drama of the music. Her virtuosic and deeply felt performance is totally convincing. Robertson and the St. Louis Symphony match her journey and the sound is clear and present. This is musical storytelling of the highest order and another addition to the Adams’ discography that deepens with multiple exposures.